The 21 Greatest NFL Players as Commercial Actors, Ranked
So, the 2020 NFL season is off and running. The canned crowd noise and creepy fan cutouts are bizarre new twists. But the slew of branding work starring NFL players—skillfully (or not-so-skillfully) hocking everything from insurance to tech to tortilla chips to even more insurance—is quite familiar.
Which got me thinking: Who are the best NFL players-slash-actors?
It's clearly not Joe Flacco. And it's sure as hell not Jason Campbell, who managed to combine comatose "acting" with—bonus!—abject racism.
Rather, the following 21 greats—we picked 21 because the number 20 just sucks now (sorry, Barry Sanders)—comprise the Muse by Clio NFL All-Pro Acting Team™. But before kickoff, let's first honor two former players who didn't make the official cut, but arguably top them all ...
Honorable Mentions: Isaiah Mustafa and Terry Crews
Crews played for three teams in four years; Mustafa bounced around practice squads and NFL Europe for two. But they belong here by being the faces of the most iconic comedy campaign of our generation.
"It can be tricky filming athletes, sometimes painful, but never with Isaiah and Terry. They're both gems. My favorite shoot was with them together. They had mad respect for each other. I remember Isaiah swung by set while we were shooting Terry's first campaign, directed by Tim and Eric. Isaiah had just shot 'The Man Your Man Could Smell Like' a few weeks earlier, and this was before that'd become a worldwide favorite. Eric asked Terry if there was anything else unusual he could do ... and impromptu, Terry did the iconic 'pec muscle flexing.' Little did we know we were witnessing the creation of legends who've both evolved their careers so many times, in so many cool ways." —Lindsay Reed, freelance senior producer
On to the list itself...
21) Dak Prescott
This Dallas Cowboys star doesn't yet have the chops of his predecessor Tony Romo (spoiler alert, No. 13), but he's another riser. Real, likeable, humble, hardworking, Prescott has become a reliable go-to for brands like Sleep Number, Campbell's and Tostitos. He's still a tad green like Mahomes, but he'll soon take it to the next level.
"The night before shooting [Tostitos] in Dallas, the Cowboys played Green Bay and lost in the final seconds. The next morning, we all were ready to forgive his potentially sour mood. But he was a total pro. Super friendly with everyone on set, really easy to work with and take direction." —Dan Berenson, associate creative director, CP+B
20) Patrick Mahomes
Wait, the NFL's most dynamic and popular player "only" at No. 20?! While the stud Chiefs QB shows budding chops in the latest State Farm work (originally DDB Chicago, now The Marketing Arm), the "Mahomie" is still relatively raw. But he's got the looks/charisma to become great. And as the new Head & Shoulders spokesplayer, he also shines when paired with No. 18 on this list. Though still a little doe-eyed, he's a rising branding star with justifiably growing theatrical swagger—even just using his Aziz Ansari-ish voice in this nice animated spot from Cactus Denver.
"Making a commercial is nothing like playing QB, but seeing Patrick work gives strong insight into what makes him so great on the field. Between takes he'll casually joke around, keep things light, but the moment it's time to work, you can almost see a switch flip in his eyes. He locks in—focused, determined, demanding the best from himself." —Brian Watson, executive creative director, Cactus
19) Drew Brees
New Orleans Saints QB Brees isn't as ubiquitous as J.J. Watt, Aaron Rodgers or the Mannings, but he's always made the most of some killer concepts with scant dialogue, like this ESPN classic. He can also carry the bulk of a performance like in this Tempur-Breeze (get it?) mattress spot. Honest, trustworthy, endearing, never overacting, Drew's basically like your nicest, favorite, funniest uncle, like when Pepsi and Chiat L.A. asked him to go full-on boy band with the lads in One Direction.
"Drew was a class act. His ability to take down the walls of 'celebrity' eased the stresses of production. One scene had him trying out for the band. He happily let go, sang off key, and attempted choreographed dance moves. You sensed he genuinely cared about being there and wasn't just phoning it in. Voluntarily stayed long after we wrapped to thank, sign autographs and take photos with the entire local crew." —Chris MacNeil, creative director
18) Troy Polamalu
An all-time Pittsburgh Steelers great and 2020 Hall of Fame inductee, strong safety Polamalu is one of only four defensive players on this list. Mostly known for Head & Shoulders, celebrating his majestic Samoan locks, to me he was best in CP+B's parody of one of the great sports ads of all time, for Coke Zero. Confident yet soft-spoken bordering on shy, Polamalu could also hit like several freight trains. Think Michael Cera meets Mike Tyson.
"There's an old advertising axiom: Avoid working with kids or animals. Athletes could be third on the list. It's like pushing a world-renowned microbiologist in front of the camera—odds are, they'll be terrible. But when we started rolling, there was immediate relief. [Troy] was one of the nicest, most genuinely engaged guys ever. He demanded more of himself than we did. We'd feel like we had it, but he always said he had a better take left in him. I feel sorry for his opponents. Imagine applying that work ethic to something you're naturally good at. And that something involves knocking people into next week." —Dave Schiff, chief creative officer, Made Movement
17) Brian Bosworth/Eddie George
Bosworth, the '80s bad boy phenom Oklahoma linebacker, aka "The Boz," who played only two NFL seasons before injuries derailed him, almost didn't qualify because he's the only player who's made action movies his post-football profession. But he and former All-Pro running back and Heisman winner Eddie George crush their melodramatic, WB-Smallville-esque roles as "Sheriff" and "Doctor" in Dr Pepper's delightfully campy "Fansville" campaign from Deutsch LA. Boz deftly plays the cliché, B-movie, testosterone-filled small town cop. And deftly deadpan George embraces and flaunts the fact that most doctors aren't this ripped or handsome.
In conversations I've had with Deutsch LA executive creative director Ryan Lehr, I've been told both Boz and Eddie are super engaged and take the craft very seriously. They both have acting experience, Boz in film/TV of course, but most people don't know Eddie does live theater. They come to set prepared, ready to work and have fun.
16) Russell Wilson
Always overlooked at 5-foot-11, Wilson's been silencing doubters since joining the Seahawks in 2012 out of Wisconsin. Along with Rookie of the Year, seven Pro Bowl nods and a Lombardi Trophy, he also performs off the field. Bose. Microsoft. But mostly in a highly demanding, recurring role as Alaska Airlines' "chief football officer," which requires him to carry spots almost singlehandedly, and put himself in goofy situations like playing bongos on a giant tree stump. Or canoeing. Or sitting fully clothed in an ice bath. He's straight man meets occasional quirk.
"We've worked with a lot of sports personalities over the decades. Russell Wilson was one of the best. He was so gracious and easygoing, which translated to a beyond-his-years ease in improvising with other on-camera talent, all of which were employees of the airline. Not a single 'actor' on the sets. Yes, one of the best we've encountered." —Tracy Wong, chief creative officer, WongDoody
15) Tim Tebow
The former Florida star and 2007 Heisman winner—who also coincidentally wore jersey No. 15—never made a Super Bowl outside of endearingly mocking his lack of a contract in a 2014 campaign for T-Mobile. But Tebow shows that enthusiasm, likability, humility and charisma translate into solid acting chops ... no better than in the latest installment of Chiat NY's great Nissan "Heisman House" campaign, where he channels his inner Howard Hughes. (And kudos for his delivery of the "What kind of bird has teeth?" line in this cutdown.) Lots of great players here—Derrick Henry, Charles Woodson, Baker Mayfield, Marcus Mariota, Kyler Murray, Mark Ingram Jr., Lamar Jackson—but Tebow's humble, almost childlike vibe, sharp timing and Men's Health looks stand out. Think John C. Reilly meets Zac Efron.
"Every one of our Nissan Heisman House cast members are truly multi-talented, demonstrating their impressive acting chops take after take. Tim Tebow has been one of our most expressive and versatile actors. Not one to shy away from a challenge, he effortlessly rhymed off the Latin names of birds like he was an ornithologist. And his beard was hilarious and a true hit on social. Needless to say, being on the set of Heisman House was an absolute blast." —Allyson Witherspoon, vp of marketing communications and media, Nissan North America
14) Bo Jackson
One of history's greatest pure athletes, Bo, after winning the '85 Heisman, became a marketing sensation toggling between pro football and baseball. The shy Alabama kid—he battled and overcame a severe childhood stutter—instantly showed he was ready for both the pro game (famously trucking then-feared linebacker Brian Bosworth) and the ad game, via Nike's legendary "Bo Knows" work in '89. Later, he reunited with Boz in this sports fan and vintage gamer's dream Kia spot from David&Goliath. Like many here, he has a great Nissan "Heisman House" role, as the respected elder statesman. Bo's a strong, dignified silent type who can also crush wry humor.
"Working with Bo and Boz was a dream come true. As a die-hard Raider fan, I'll never forget that famous play. Cut to years later, we're recreating that moment in Kia's campaign 'Techmo Bo.' To be able to discuss the moment firsthand behind the scenes with them was one the most surreal yet rewarding experiences ever, as a creative and Raider fan." —David Angelo, founder/chairman, David&Goliath
13) Tony Romo
The former Dallas Cowboys star QB (2004-16) also doesn't have the endless IMDB credits of a Manning, but what he lacked in quantity he made up for with quality, like the classic DirecTV spot "Arts and Craftsy," just one of the many insanely funny spots in the legendary campaign from Grey New York. Whether giving beer advice or earning his ESPN stripes, he brings his approachable, leading-man looks and a hint of weirdo goofiness. Crownie, anyone? And being Paul Rudd's doppelgänger doesn't hurt him in the comedy/likability department.
" 'Arts and Craftsy' was a special performance. [Romo] showed up well rehearsed and ready to fully commit. And once he got the wig, beard and beads on, it was clear he wasn't going to half-ass it. He delivered the lines so pleasantly creepy. Full credit to Romo for fully inhabiting the character and totally capturing that weird wonder we were going for." —Steven Fogel and Doug Fallon, executive creative directors, BBDO
12) Aaron Rodgers
Rodgers' State Farm "Discount Double Check" spots from DDB Chicago became instant classics. He has an everyman vibe with a hint of cockiness that makes him approachable yet aspirational. Good looks, facial expressions, range, timing. Can play Izod straight man or stupidly funny. Small or over-the-top. Ranking him "only" No. 12 might be surprising since he's everywhere on Sundays, but at least it matches his uniform number. Bonus points for his amazing homage to Norm Macdonald's trademark "Burt Reynolds/SNL Celebrity Jeopardy" answer on actual Celebrity Jeopardy.
"Aaron's strengths as a player showed up on set. He was competitive and wanted to be better than the professional actors. He'd rewatch takes with the director and ask to go again if he felt he didn't nail a line. He also has a photographic memory, so when we'd show him an entirely new script on set, he'd look at it for a second, say 'Got it' and know every word." —Brian Culp, creative director, DDB Chicago
11) Arian Foster
Not a "household name" like the others here, but the talent and drive that turned the undrafted Foster into the Texans' all-time leading rusher help him nearly crack the top 10. Check his brilliantly underplayed performance in this NFL Shop spot. And his "I don't eat gumbo" line for Toyota. But nothing tops his roles in 1) Foot locker's fantastically written, cast and executed "Not Famous Andy" and 2) a spot for EA Sports' Madden, going retro paired with Marshawn Lynch. Arian was always just smooooooth, cerebral, imposing when needed, and a little off-kilter-playful.
"Arian and Marshawn were naturals on camera. It was almost like their running styles emulated the approach to their performances. Arian was really focused and thoughtful, picked his lanes and powered in. Marshawn was more improvisation, in space and creating but making it look effortlessly elegant. They were true competitors, always looking to one-up the other, which conveyed the rivalry we were going for. We weren't sure if they'd be into the '80s clothes and ridiculous facial hair, but they were super down. Just two amazing talents." —Ben Salsky, creative director, MullenLowe
[Loud whistle! Halftime! Shockingly, Wes Welker didn't make the Top 10 ...]
10) Clay Matthews
Bit of an upset here, as he usually plays second fiddle to Rodgers in State Farm. But he's simply a better actor than Rodgers and many others, bringing deadpan, self-mocking, faux-expert humor that's always extra funny coming from such a Goliath. He can handle heavy dialogue and sometimes seems to channel a lower-key Jim Carrey, as in these simple GMC videos. While he's probably best known for State Farm, to me Matthews is at his purposely overacted peak for Fathead ... and even funnier Fathead ... and with Sasquatch.
"Clay was a total pro, game for whatever. But he didn't just blindly follow direction and punch the clock. He brought more astute comedic sensibilities than I expected. He has this wry sense of humor lurking beneath his quiet, low-key demeanor. Without us asking, he nonchalantly slipped in some improv moments that not only made the final cuts, but made them way better." —Graham Shepherd, creative director, Digitas North America
9) Cam Newton
The "Cam Cam" for Chiat and Foot Locker and his requisite ESPN SportsCenter spot show some range in the former Heisman winner/MVP/current Patriots QB ... as do these Chiat Gatorade gems where he goes ew-gross-funny and mock diva. His gregarious, endearing, fun-loving attitude always shines—like going HAM against Pee Wees for director Erich Joiner, Leo Burnett Detroit and Buick—but underneath is a seriously dedicated, competitive, natural on-camera talent.
"Compared with many athletes I've worked with, Cam went above and beyond. Both in performing, but also because the kids were so starstruck by him they could hardly focus. He stepped into his role perfectly and helped focus their energy, those 10-year-old Pee Wee kids really wanted to impress him." —Erich Joiner, founder/director, Tool of North America
8) Tom Brady
The GOAT "only" No. 8?? It's more due to the talent above him than his lack of it. His best role might've been this Jim Jenkins-helmed "Deflategate" Foot Locker spot, flashing some skilled faux indignation. This under-the-radar gem from Barrett SF leverages his goofier, self-mocking side. But nothing tops his "being attractive and not unattractive" role on SNL. As spokes-player, TB12 just keeps getting better, with slick, leading-man looks and a veteran gunslinger aura. Kind of a Vince Vaughn meets Kevin Costner.
"Being a lifelong Dolphins fan, I wasn't particularly excited to be working with him [Brady], but I did like the script. Then he turned out to not only be a fairly good actor, he was friendly and very funny. All the more reason to hate him." —Jim Jenkins, director, O-Positive
"We had two questions before shooting: Would he wear a ridiculous wig? And would he be willing to drop his cool-guy image and act like a complete and utter dork? With little prompting, he did both. Couldn't have been nicer or more collaborative. He kept asking what he could do better ... you could tell he just wanted to make something great." —Jamie Barrett, executive creative director, BarrettSF
"Brady was the best because he had the biggest risk—the idea was essentially his one and only comment on Deflategate, and we were unsure if he'd really do it. But when he showed up he let it rip, we went for it and he was all in. So I have to respect the GOAT!" —Chris Beresford-Hill, chief creative officer, TBWA\Chiat\Day NY
7) Odell Beckham, Jr.
Four words—Working out with Sasquatch. Plus one more word: Fathead. OBJ has a knack for understated, self-aware, semi-weird comedy as a solo artist ... but he really has the time of his life when he teams up with former teammate Eli Manning. While "only" No. 7 here, guess who's No. 1 in the 2020 endorsement bank? Yup, OBJ with a staggering $26.5 million from Nike, EA Sports, Dunkin' Donuts and others. (Bonus: He did some more great Sasquatch with No. 10 Matthews).
"OBJ was just game to do something entertaining. There's that showman aspect to him on the field. You can't understand the level of athlete these guys are until you see them in person. We spent an hour with a very athletic stand-in working on the lift which we never actually got right ... Odell nailed it first try." —Cam Miller, creative director, Goodby Silverstein & Partners, and Mike Cicale, freelance creative director
6) J.J. Watt
Amazingly, Watt's only the second-most feared player on this list—just behind No. 4 on this list—but he's by far the largest physically ... making his agile timing and meticulously precise delivery so appealing. He's mocked his own testosterone overload for Yahoo! Fantasy Sports; simultaneously mastered physical and verbal demands while synchronized swimming for Reliant Energy; hell, all the Watts showed talent for Subway (but J.J.'s "Nobody asked ... Derek" line wins). And like many of the greats on this list, he nailed hosting SNL. He's as ubiquitous as, say, Aaron Rodgers, but just a better actor.
"We've had the opportunity to work with J.J. on a couple of Subway campaigns over the past year. He was great on both occasions. Often with non-actors it's hard to get them not to 'act.' He was a natural on set, and had really good instincts for his lines." —Alex Augustinos, Creative Directior, Mcgarrybowen
5) Eli Manning
The two-time Super Bowl champ could've easily cracked top 3. But what makes him great in ads—partnering with his brother—also hurts him because it's hard to shine in Peyton's shadow. But like his big bro, Eli thrives whether it's zero dialogue for ESPN, embracing bad comedy for DirecTV, or playing the hilariously vengeful little bro on SNL. Like OBJ, he crushed the "Dirty Dancing" spot. But newsflash: This second-fiddle is first in NFL career salary/endorsement earnings—$252.3 million, more than any player in history. Eli is kinda goofy/kinda droll, but always brings self-effacing laughs and improv, as in these great :10 SB LII "Dirty Dancing" teasers from Grey.
"Whenever you have a chance to work with someone who hosted SNL (and well) you should do it. Eli's timing and ability to take direction is really impressive. He also really committed to it [Dirty Dancing] and wasn't hesitant about how ridiculous it was. He understood that the joke wasn't just that he was doing this goofy dance but how seriously he was taking it. He volunteered to put in extra time to learn the choreography." —Cam Miller, creative director, Goodby Silverstein & Partners, and Mike Cicale, freelance creative director
"There was a reason Peyton was all over the TV on every brand. But what surprised me [on the SportCenter "Manning Family Tour" spot] is how great Eli was. He could actually act! Subtle but spot-on. Another big plus was having David Shane directing. He is so good at making the athletes feel comfortable. Peyton deservedly gets all the ink, but little bro is damn close." —Paul Renner, Freelance executive creative director
4) Ray Lewis
The menacing former Baltimore Ravens linebacker is ironically at his best in comedy spots. He holds his own with Paul Rudd for EA Sports' Madden from Heat SF, and in this Hank Perlman-directed CP+B spot with fellow Canton enshrinee Brian Urlacher for Xbox One. And in Wieden's batshit world of Old Spice. Want subtle again? Here's more Rudd genius—his opening line delivery of "I don't know" is gold. The dude's got "Super Bowl champ and Hall of Fame linebacker sideline-to-sideline" range, effortlessly toggling between low-key "in the zone" and impulsively frenetic. And as a top 2 honoree, he gets three reverential quotes…
"Working with Ray was fascinating and impressive. Right before a take, he'd get quiet and serious; you could see him thinking extremely hard about exactly what he was trying to do with his performance. He'd close his eyes, take a deep breath, and without any fear, and complete confidence, he would execute perfectly, as if he wanted to do it so well that he'd never have to do it again. Almost like he was trying to knock the performance out of the game. He was that good." —Hank Perlman, co-founder/director, Hungry Man
"Ray was awesome, super focused and luckily for Paul [Rudd], seemed to enjoy the foolishness as much as we all did." —James King, associate creative director, Square
"Ray had an energy that made people on set love him. He talked to everyone. Sat with crew during lunch. Treated a PA the same way he did the director. In fact, after my first time working with him, he emailed me to say thank you. I never gave him my email. He took the time to get it from the client and craft a thank-you to an insignificant kid." —Tony Stern, freelance creative director
3) Baker Mayfield
Mayfield's been inconsistent as Cleveland's QB (great 2018 rookie season, a down 2019). But his performances in Arnold's "At Home with Baker Mayfield" for Progressive are as consistent as they come, proving he's poised for spokesplayer greatness. Understated, self-deprecating, he flashes laser-sharp, "picking his spots" comedic timing. He gets big laughs whether via scant dialogue with equally talented wife Emily; pregnant, damn near Bob Newhart-esque phone pauses; or just whispering "Animals." He can even nail wordless physical comedy for "Heisman House."
"We like to improv a ton, and Baker's just naturally good at it. There was one moment where we were ironing out the beats of a joke with him and we said, 'What if we try it like Dumb and Dumber?' And Baker responded 'Oh, like Big Gulps.' And that was the exact moment we were referring to. A few seconds later he performed it exactly right, on the first take. Pretty impressive." —Sean McBride, chief creative officer, Arnold
"Baker Mayfield HAS CHOPS! He was also open to trying things on set and let us know how he'd prefer to say things. 'Is it OK if I say, "Y'all" instead of "You all?" ' Sounds like a tiny little thing on paper, but anything we can do to make these guys comfortable translates directly to the spots." —Dave Laden, director, Hungry Man
2) Marshawn Lynch
On paper, Beast Mode at No. 2 seems like a "Namath guaranteeing Super Bowl III"-level upset. On the contrary, Lynch has been as effortlessly dominant in ads as he was in the red zone. Quietly powerful. Elusive. Self-aware like a fox. A lovable weirdo. (Name one other player who'd have a pet raccoon?) The epitome of #DGAF. One of his most appealing traits: He never seems to be, you know, acting! He just shows up in sweats and a hoodie, and rolls ... even if he doesn't actually speak. Most recently, he played Charles Dickens reading to giddy NFL "kids" in Frito-Lay's "Twas the Night Before Kickoff." But to me, nothing tops his quintessentially "Beast Mode-ish" performance for Common Sense Media and Goodby, poaching food and hot sauce-pranking to tout #DeviceFreeDinner. And if those don't make you think he's an unsung creative genius, the extended version will.
"Marshawn attacked shooting the way he did football: looked at the playbook, nodded, processed what we wanted ... then tossed the script and did whatever it took to find the end zone. That's what makes him so charming on camera: He's not just memorizing words, he's improvising, looking for the holes and plowing ahead his way, all with genuine enthusiasm and an endearingly loud sense of humor. But that doesn't mean he's a loose cannon. He's a super-focused, serious entrepreneur—his Beast Mode Productions and director Diaunte Thompson shot the hell out of this—and above all, he was such a nice guy to just sit around and talk to." —Jeff Goodby, co-chairman, Goodby, Silverstein & Partners
1) Peyton Manning
The King. Period. A legit chameleon and borderline method actor, Manning excels at self-deprecation, as in this classic for Sprint showing his unmatched dialogue timing with the "rocket arm" line (and strong moustache game). There are too many other Peyton classics to list, but Mastercard gems like "Cut that meat!" and "Moooooovers" are unforgettable. He and Eli became pop-culture icons with this pitch-perfect, awkward white guys rapping DirecTV spot. His Nationwide work with Brad Paisley is pitch-perfect. And like Brady, he hilariously mocked his "good guy" reputation on SNL in an absolutely legendary "United Way" parody.
On the sincere side, this perfectly concepted and executed Gatorade spot proves Peyton can carry a commercial and elevate the entire ethos of a brand without even appearing (except as a toddler). He's Marlon Brando meets Will Ferrell meets De Niro meets Meryl Streep meets Morgan Freeman meets (literally) Ron Burgundy.
"Peyton has incredible comedic timing, a natural improviser. He's game for anything as long as it fits his character and narrative ... normally jokes made at his own expense. He knows that's part of his brand and why he's so lovable on camera. Peyton's a kid at heart. If the material is strong, he's ready to play." —Brigg Bloomquist, director, Bob Industries
"Peyton Manning is hands down the greatest NFL actor and the best comedic athlete of all time. You can coax a line reading out of anyone, and we often did. But Manning brings something to it." —Chris Beresford-Hill, chief creative officer, TBWA\Chiat\Day NY
Disagree? Angry that I made you watch too many commercials or stupidly omitted Deion Sanders, Brian Urlacher and Gronk? Send piles of hate mail here.
Until then ... CUT THAT MEAT!