With 10 days left until the regular season opener, this 10-part series counts down the top-200 players in the NFL. 200 might sounds like a lot, but with 53 players on 32 teams’ rosters, that’s 1696 players. Count guys on the practice squad, guys on the PUP or the IR, and guys who are free agents, but still on teams’ radar. That’s probably 2000 players. These guys are the top 10%. Positional value doesn’t matter because if it did, this list would be too quarterback heavy.
81. OLB Terrell Suggs (Baltimore)
The NFL’s Defensive Player of the Year in 2012, and a deserving one at that, Terrell Suggs missed 8 games with injury in 2012 and struggled mightily when on the field. I’ll give him somewhat of a pass though since he was somehow playing through two otherwise season ending injuries, a torn Achilles and a torn biceps. Assuming he hasn’t ruined his body going into his age 31 season, he should have a bounce back season.
82. S Devin McCourty (New England)
A first round pick out of Rutgers in 2010, McCourty burst onto the scene as a rookie, making the Pro-Bowl and the All-Pro team, and receiving 2 Defensive Rookie of the Year votes, the only player to steal votes away from Ndamukong Suh. McCourty had a down year in 2011, along with the rest of the Patriots’ defense, but bounced back to an extent in 2012. Still, with Alfonzo Dennard emerging as a starter and Aqib Talib coming in, the Patriots moved McCourty to safety. Ordinarily, this is a positional downgrade for a cornerback, but it turned out to be one of the best things that could happen to McCourty as he emerged as one of the top deep safeties in the NFL, allowing just 5 completions in 8 games at the position and showing ball hawking abilities as a center fielder. In his first full season at the position in 2013, McCourty has the chance to break out as one of the top few safeties in the NFL.
83. CB Tim Jennings (Chicago)
On paper, it would appear that Tim Jennings broke out last season, leading the NFL in interceptions with 9, after accumulating only 7 thus far in his career, but that’s the flaw with only looking at interception totals. Jennings was actually a great cornerback the year before, starting all 16 games and not surrendering a touchdown all season. He just didn’t get any recognition because he only had 2 interceptions. He’s unlikely to even come close the matching those 9 interceptions in 2013, but he won’t need to do that to have a successful season in coverage.
84. RB LeSean McCoy (Philadelphia)
LeSean McCoy looked like the 2nd coming of Brian Westbrook, only healthier, in 2010 and 2011 with the Eagles, playing 30 of 32 games and totaling 3296 yards from scrimmage and 29 touchdowns. McCoy struggled by his standards along with the rest of the Eagles’ offense in 2012, averaging just 4.2 yards per carry and scoring just 5 times (3 of which were in the air). He also was limited to 200 carries and 12 games by injury. However, he’s an excellent fit for Chip Kelly’s offense and should have a bounce back year and then some in 2013, on what should be a better Eagles offense.
85. TE Greg Olsen (Carolina)
A 1st round talent, Olsen finally put it all together last season, catching 69 passes for 843 yards and 5 touchdowns. Once Cam Newton got over his 1st half of his sophomore season slump, Olsen got even better, catching 40 passes for 496 yards and 4 touchdowns in his final 9 games. Steve Smith is another year older so Olsen could see even more targets and if Newton starts passing on the goal line more often instead of running to preserve his body, look out. He’s also an adequate run blocker.
86. DE Jared Allen (Minnesota)
A likely future Hall of Famer, Jared Allen is credited with 117 sacks in 9 years, including 22 in 2011, which almost broke the single season record. He’s only behind John Abraham, who is 4 years older, among active players in sacks. Like the other 4 active NFL players with 100+ sacks, Allen is getting older, going into his age 31 season and he wasn’t quite as good as he usually is in 2012, but he’s still one of the better defensive ends in the NFL. I have him ahead of the slightly older Julius Peppers, but behind the slightly younger DeMarcus Ware. John Abraham and Dwight Freeney, the other two members of that group, took a while to get signed this off-season and are off this list. Allen will be a free agent next off-season and he should be greated by a much stronger market, barring injury, even if he doesn’t end up returning to the Vikings.
87. DT Henry Melton (Chicago)
Drafted as an oversized defensive end in the 4th round out of Texas in 2009, Henry Melton, at one time a collegiate running back, has since been converted to defensive tackle. The 6-3 290 pounder is undersized, but he’s a great fit for Chicago’s defensive scheme and he actually isn’t bad against the run. He’s also a rare pass rusher for an interior defensive lineman and has rare movement abilities, as you can expect out of a one-time collegiate running back. He’s emerged as one of the best defensive tackles in the NFL over the past 2 seasons, leading to the Bears franchise tagging him this off-season. He wasn’t able to reach a long-term deal, so he’ll be a free agent again off-season, but he’ll get paid somewhere.
88. QB Ben Roethlisberger (Pittsburgh)
Sure, he’s never made the playoffs without a top-3 scoring defense supporting him, but he’s also 8th all-time in career QB rating, 6th among active quarterbacks, and he was a very big part of 2 Super Bowl winning teams and a Super Bowl runner up. He’s not a top-top level quarterback, but he’s right in that Joe Flacco tier.
89. MLB Luke Kuechly (Carolina)
After the Panthers moved Luke Kuechly from outside linebacker to inside linebacker, the Panthers allowed just 21.2 points per game over the final 12 games of the season, which would have ranked 12th in the NFL over the whole season, despite playing 8 top-16 scoring offenses in that time period. They allowed 27.3 points per game in their first 4 games. That’s not all Kuechly, but a lot of it is. Kuechly is a little overrated based purely on his tackles total. Of his 161 tackles, only 67 of them were within 4 yards of the line of scrimmage on first down, 6 yards on 2nd down, and the full distance on 3rd and 4th down. I argued that Casey Hayward and Bobby Wagner were more deserving of Defensive Rookie of the Year, but you’d still have a hard time finding a handful more promising young defensive players than Kuechly.
90. S Troy Polamalu (Pittsburgh)
Troy Polamalu has missed 22 games over the past 4 years and in those 22 games, the Steelers have allowed 20.2 points per game. With him, however, they allow just 15.5 points per game. As good as their defense is, he might be their single most important defensive player when healthy because he can impact the game with his mere presence. He’s only going into his age 32 season, so he shouldn’t be done and luckily injuries haven’t sapped his abilities when he has been able to suit up. He’s still been very effective when on the field. It’s just a matter of staying healthy.
91. WR Andre Johnson (Houston)
Going into 2012, Andre Johnson was 31 years old and coming off a season in which he played in just 7 games with injury. However, the Texans unexpectedly got a vintage year from Andre Johnson in 2012, as he caught 112 passes for 1598 yards and 4 touchdowns, leading the NFL in yards per route run with 3.01 and ranking 2nd in the NFL in yards overall behind Calvin Johnson (who played over 200 more pass snaps). Those yards were actually a career high and those catches were 2nd in his career, pretty impressive considering he has 818 catches for 11,254 yards over 10 seasons. He’s probably a future Hall of Famer, but Johnson has still missed 12 games in the last 3 seasons and is going into his age 32 season. The concerns about him before last season had merit. They just didn’t prove to be an issue, but they could be this season.
92. QB Joe Flacco (Baltimore)
Throughout his 5 year career, Flacco has been a very inconsistent week to week quarterback, but an incredibly consistent year to year quarterback, proving himself to be a slightly above average quarterback and nothing more. His completion percentages have always fallen between 57.6% and 63.1%. His YPAs have always fallen between 6.7 and 7.4. His touchdowns have always fallen between 20 and 25 (with the exception of his rookie year) and his interceptions have always fallen between 10 and 12. Of course, that all changed in the post-season last year, as he completed 57.9% of his passes for an average of 9.1 YPA, 11 touchdowns, and no interceptions, en route to a Super Bowl victory. While I don’t expect him to keep that up, I do expect him to have his career best regular season this year. Bryant McKinnie and Jim Caldwell will continue to have a big impact. He’s not a top level quarterback like Manning or Brady or Rodgers or even Brees, but I consider him an elite quarterback comparable to guys like Eli Manning and Ben Roethlisberger.
93. WR Vincent Jackson (Tampa Bay)
When the Buccaneers signed Vincent Jackson for 55.5 million over 5 years last off-season, I didn’t think it was a good move. Jackson had been showing for years that he cared about money more than anything, even holding out for 10 games in 2010, and, after going to what seemed like an inferior team with an inferior quarterback, it was very possible he could coast. Besides, the history of wide receivers switching teams was not good. Instead, Vincent Jackson proved to be a great fit with Josh Freeman, a better downfield thrower than Philip Rivers, a physically declining quarterback playing behind a poor offensive line. On top of that, the Buccaneers now seem like a better team than the Chargers. Jackson caught a career high 72 passes for 1384 yards and 8 touchdowns. We’ll see if he can keep that kind of play up in his age 30 season in 2013.
94. OLB Brian Orakpo (Washington)
Before going down for the season with a torn pectoral week 2 last season, Brian Orakpo was one of the better emerging young pass rushers in the NFL. Fortunately, he suffered that injury in the season before his contract year. Orakpo will need a strong performance in 2012 to prove he’s still the same player, but I have little doubt he can bounce back. He’ll get paid somewhere this off-season and the Redskins may have no choice but to franchise tag him, as a team starved for talent defensively.
95. C Mike Pouncey (Miami)
The lesser known of the two Pouncey twins, Mike broke out as one of the top level centers in the NFL in 2012, the player brother Maurkice supposedly is. The 2011 15th overall pick was the highest drafted interior offensive lineman in 13 years at the time. Whenever you take a center in the first round, especially that high, you have to hope he becomes one of the best players in the NFL at his position and Pouncey looks well on his way towards doing so. The future is very bright.
96. MLB Lawrence Timmons (Pittsburgh)
In 2010, Lawrence Timmons looked like someone who could possibly challenge Patrick Willis to be the top middle linebacker in the NFL, or at least on the same level as Willis. He struggled in 2011 thanks to injury, both his own injuries and injuries to rush linebackers that forced him to move to rush linebacker, where he struggled mightily to get to the quarterback, playing out of position. He bounced back to an extent in 2012, but he wasn’t quite the same player he was in 2010. Still, he’s firmly in that 2nd tier of middle linebackers, with the incomparable Patrick Willis on his own in the top tier.
97. G Ben Grubbs (New Orleans)
A rare first round pick as an interior lineman in 2007, Ben Grubbs lived up to expectations with the Ravens, showing himself to be one of the consistently top level guards in the NFL. He signed a 5-year, 36 million dollar deal with the Saints as a free agent last off-season and picked up right where he left off. Considering the type of money other top level guards like Jahri Evans and Carl Nicks have gotten, Grubbs was a great value.
98. DE Mario Williams (Buffalo)
Despite coming off a torn pectoral, Mario Williams received the richest contract ever for a defensive player last off-season, signing a 6 year, 96 million dollar contract with the Bills. It wasn’t completely undeserved, but the Bills definitely had to pay a “Buffalo Tax” to get him to come to a non-premium NFL destination. Williams got off to rough start, but was much better after getting wrist surgery during the Bills’ bye and it showed. After their week 8 bye, the Bills allowed just 23.1 points per game, as opposed to 32.4 points per game before the bye. Even that 23.1 points per game figure is skewed by two very poor defensive performances against two of the better offenses in the NFL (New England and Seattle). Excluding those two games, they didn’t allow more than 24 points after the bye and they were generally a solid defense. Williams had 8 sacks in those 9 games, after 3 in the first 7, and was significantly better against the run as well.
99. OT Trent Williams (Washington)
The 4th overall pick in the 2010 NFL Draft, Trent Williams has turned into everything the Redskins were expecting him to be in 3 years in the league, joining a large group of talented young left tackles that will be protecting blindsides for the next decade. An excellent offensive lineman in both facets of the game, Williams is one of the few bright spots on Washington’s offensive line. The only knock on him is he’s already been suspended once for substance abuse and is one slip up away from a season long ban.
100. QB Matt Ryan (Atlanta)
Matt Ryan is my highest ranked quarterback who hasn’t won a Super Bowl. He’s just 1-4 in his career in the playoffs, but I think it’s unfair to judge his entire career just on 5 games. I think it’s absurd to suggest that 5 games is enough evidence to prove that a quarterback who is generally great in the regular season randomly becomes worse in the post-season. He’s faced the eventual NFC Super Bowl representative in all 4 losses. In his career in the regular season, he’s completed 62.7% of his passes for an average of 7.2 YPA, 127 touchdowns, and 60 interceptions and has a career regular season record of 56-22. He’s coming off the best season of his career, under new Offensive Coordinator Dirk Koetter. He was also the most efficient he’s ever been on a per play basis, ranking 5th in the NFL with a 99.4 QB rating. I don’t think the Falcons’ defense is good enough for them to win a Super Bowl this year, but Ryan will get his ring soon enough.
Go on to 101-120