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.
161. S Kam Chancellor (Seattle)
Drafted in the 5th round in 2011, 3 rounds after Taylor Mays, Chancellor has become the safety that Taylor Mays was supposed to be, an extra linebacker as a box safety that holds up in coverage when necessary. He plays 54.4% of his snaps within 8 yards of the line of scrimmage, 7th most in the NFL. He complements teammate Earl Thomas, a talented deep safety, very well. He’s one of the better safeties in the NFL and received a 4-year, 28 million dollar extension this off-season.
162. DE Desmond Bryant (Cleveland)
Desmond Bryant might be best known for his hilarious mug shot after an off-season arrest this year, but in spite of that, he was deserving of the 5-year 34 million dollar deal he received from the Browns as a free agent. He’s been a very talented rotational player at both defensive end and defensive tackle for the Raiders over the past 2 seasons and excelled in half a season as the starter at defensive tackle after Richard Seymour got hurt last year. Now he moves to 5-technique defensive end in Cleveland 3-4 defense, which might be his best position. At 6-6 300, he has the size to set the edge against the run, but he also has the ability as a pass rusher to excel in that aspect when necessary.
163. OT Branden Albert (Kansas City)
Drafted 15th overall by the Chiefs in 2008, Albert was converted from guard to left tackle in the NFL, a rare move considering it’s usually the other way around. Albert expectedly struggled early in his career, but has come around as a solid left tackle over the past 3 seasons. Back problems cost him some time last season and scared the Chiefs off of giving him a long-term deal, but he was still too valuable for the Chiefs to let go so they franchise tagged him. If he can show he’s healthy, someone will play him big money next off-season, even going into his age 30 season.
164. G Louis Vasquez (Denver)
A bright spot on an otherwise horrific San Diego offensive line, Vasquez took over as a starter at right guard for the Chargers as a 3rd round rookie in 2009 and never looked back, providing above average guard play in all 4 seasons. The Chargers’ offensive line could be even worse this season now that he’s gone, as free agency’s #2 guard (after Andy Levitre) signed a 4 year, 23.5 million dollar deal with division rival Denver, a sneaky smart deal by the Broncos.
165. WR Danny Amendola (New England)
Danny Amendola comes to New England to replace Wes Welker as the featured slot receiver of the Patriots’ offense. The Patriots agreed to terms with Amendola even before Welker signed with the Broncos and was their off-season priority all along, which suggests that Bill Belichick believes Amendola is a younger upgrade over an aging Welker. Amendola might not be as good as Welker was right away, but he’s 4 years younger so it was a smart move for the future and with Welker going into his age 32 season, I don’t know that I wouldn’t rather have Amendola over Welker this season. Whether or not he stays healthy is going to be the key, but Amendola has 100 more receptions in just 10 more games than Welker did upon arrival in New England.
166. TE Dwayne Allen (Indianapolis)
The 2nd tight end the Colts drafted in 2012, Dwayne Allen was a revelation as a rookie. He wasn’t a big time receiver, catching 45 passes for 521 yards and 3 touchdowns, but he excelled as a blocker and those receiving numbers weren’t bad for a rookie at all. Pep Hamilton replaces Bruce Arians as offensive coordinator and will implement a more tight end focused offense that should allow Allen to shine and improve on his receiving totals. Going into his 2nd year in the league, the 3rd rounder out of Clemson looks like the next Heath Miller, who has long gone underrated as one of the best all-around tight ends in the game.
167. OT Orlando Franklin (Denver)
Orlando Franklin didn’t play great as a 2nd round rookie in 2011, but Tim Tebow holding the ball significantly longer than any quarterback in the NFL had a lot to do with it. Peyton Manning came in this season and shaved about a second off the average time that the offensive line needed to block and it made Franklin’s job a lot easier. He’s probably somewhere in between how he looked in 2011 and how he looked last season, but he’s still a very talented player in his own right and, going into just his 3rd year in the league, Franklin looks like one of the better young right tackles in the game.
168. TE Martellus Bennett (Chicago)
Strictly a punishing run blocker behind Jason Witten on the depth chart for the first 4 seasons of his career in Dallas, the 2nd round pick Bennett broke out as a pass catcher in his first year as a starter with the Giants in 2011, catching 55 passes for 625 yards and 5 touchdowns, while remaining a tough run blocker. One of the best all-around tight ends in the game, Bennett got a deserved 4 year, 20.4 million dollar deal from the Bears in free agency this off-season.
169. OLB Ryan Kerrigan (Washington)
When top pass rusher Brian Orakpo went down for the season last year, it was up to 2nd year player Ryan Kerrigan to carry the load as a pass rusher and that he did. The 2011 1st round pick is now going into his 3rd year in the league and could have his most productive season yet with Orakpo back to take some of the pressure of off him. Orakpo and Kerrigan could be a very scary pass rush duo.
170. WR Wes Welker (Denver)
No wide receiver has ever left Tom Brady and had anywhere near the kind of production he had in New England. Fortunately, Wes Welker was smart and left to go play with the next best thing in Peyton Manning. He’ll catch fewer balls this season with a more diverse receiving corps around him. Even he admits that if he’s catching 112 passes (what he averaged per year in New England) the Broncos are in trouble. However, he is still one of the best slot receivers in the game, along with Danny Amendola. I’ve ranked both very close together for that reason, giving Amendola the slight edge as Welker goes into his age 32 season.
171. DE Lamarr Houston (Oakland)
Lamarr Houston is an unorthodox 4-3 defensive end, as he has the build of a 5-technique 3-4 end or a 3-technique 4-3 defensive tackle at 6-3 305. However, Houston makes it work. Obviously, at his size, he’s a monster against the run, but he’s an adequate pass rusher as well. He’s reportedly slimmed down to around 290 to add some quickness this season, but he should still remain a versatile defensive lineman. One of the Raiders’ few bright spots, Houston, a 2010 2nd round pick, is a free agent next off-season and could cash in with a deal similar to former teammate Desmond Bryant, a similar player who signed a 5-year, 34 million dollar deal with the Browns. The Raiders will be flush with cap space for the first time in seemingly forever and with little talent, expect them to make the biggest push to bring him back.
172. DT Jurrell Casey (Tennessee)
A 3rd round pick of the Titans in 2011, Casey excelled as a situational player as a rookie, but broke out as a starting defensive tackle in 2012, excelling as a run stopper while also offering some production as a pass rusher. Only going into his 3rd year in the league, Casey could continue to get better and he’s one of the best young defensive tackles in the game.
173. OT Anthony Davis (San Francisco)
A 1st round pick in 2010, Anthony Davis looked like a bust for the first 2 years of his career. Overweight and out of shape, the lead footed Davis struggled mightily in pass protection and wasn’t the run blocker he was supposed to be either. There were rumors he could be headed to guard. Instead, Davis got himself into shape, won the right tackle job and was one of the best right tackles in the game this season. I’ll have to see it again, but he has first round talent and could see his career follow the trajectory of Andre Smith, a similar player drafted a year earlier. Like Smith, he could be the best right tackle in the game if he wants to.
174. CB Sam Shields (Green Bay)
A converted receiver, Shields burst onto the scene as an undrafted rookie for the eventual Super Bowl winning Packers in 2010, earning a significant role down the stretch and making several big plays on the Packers’ run. Shields struggled a bit in 2011 and looked on his way towards falling out of the top-3 cornerbacks in Green Bay going into 2012, but he managed to bounce back, securing a starting job in place of Charles Woodson, who had converted to safety. Though he missed 6 games with injury, Shields was a shutdown cornerback when in the lineup and if he plays all or most of the Packers’ games this season, he could have his best season yet. That would be a valuable thing for him in a contract year.
175. G Harvey Dahl (St. Louis)
A consistently solid guard for years in Atlanta, Dahl signed a 4 year, 16 million dollar contract with the Rams two off-seasons ago and has continued where he left off in Atlanta. He’s going into his age 32 season, so that could be a concern, but he should remain an above average starter for a couple more seasons. Undrafted in 2005, Dahl has made 73 starts in his career.
176. S Ryan Clark (Pittsburgh)
Usually players get worse as they age, but Ryan Clark seems to just be getting better. He had arguably the best season of his career last season, despite being in his age 33 season. He was one of the best and most underrated safeties in the league. Still, everyone ages sometime and he’s going into his age 34 contract year. The Steelers drafted his replacement in the 4th round during the 2013 NFL Draft so this could be his last year with the Steelers and he’s mentioned he might retire if the Steelers don’t re-sign him. Still, he could still have a very good season in 2013, even if this ends up being his final year.
177. OT Jordan Gross (Carolina)
Jordan Gross is another player who could be in his final year, but he’s still very good at his position. A 1st round pick in 2003, Gross has started 151 games for the Panthers, primarily on the blindside, and doesn’t really seem to be slowing down. He’s heading into his age 33 season, which also happens to be a contract year and he’s mentioned he wants to retire a Panther and may just hang them up if they don’t bring him back. With no internal replacement and an overall weak offensive line, it’s hard to imagine them just letting him walk this off-season.
178. C Maurkice Pouncey (Pittsburgh)
A 3-time Pro-Bowler and All-Pro in his first 3 years in the league, Pouncey didn’t really come close to deserving either of those honors until this season, but centers are really tough to evaluate unless you watch their every snap. This season, the former 1st round pick had the best season of his career and he has all the ability and potential to continue doing that and more going forward.
179. DE Brian Robison (Minnesota)
Minnesota’s “other” defensive end, Brian Robison broke out this season, opposite Jared Allen. Allen taking away attention from the offensive line really helps Robison, but he’s a good pass rusher in his own right. Unfortunately, he broke out really late in his career, as he’ll be a free agent going into his age 31 season next off-season. We’ll see what kind of market greets him, but he could be seen as an aging system player, much like Israel Idonije, a talented pass rusher in his own right, was this off-season. He might not get a significant payday in his career.
180. WR Antonio Brown (Pittsburgh)
During the middle of Mike Wallace’s holdout last off-season, the Steelers signed Antonio Brown to a 5-year 42.5 million dollar deal. It was a surprising move, as Brown had only played 2 years in the league and was under team control for two more seasons (though he was going to be a restricted free agent the following off-season), but the deal was much more reasonable than anything Wallace was demanding (and eventually got from Miami). The Steelers were in a tough cap spot and were unlikely to be able to re-sign both long-term, so they jumped at the opportunity to sign Brown and simultaneously send a message to Wallace that he wasn’t getting what he wanted so he might as well just show up. Brown isn’t the speedster Wallace is, but he’s not a one trick pony like Wallace either. He’s a much more refined route runner and a better fit for Todd Haley’s offense. I think they made the right move.
Go on to 181-200