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.
141. CB Leon Hall (Cincinnati)
Leon Hall was once one of the better cornerbacks in the NFL, rightfully getting a 5 year, 42.4 million dollar deal from the Bengals after the lockout in 2011. The Bengals kept him over teammate Johnathan Joseph, who eventually got even more money than Hall did from the Texans. He was the #1 cornerback even when he played with Joseph. However, Hall had a down year in 2012 because he returned too quickly from a torn Achilles suffered the previous July. He could easily bounce back in 2013.
142. DE Antonio Smith (Houston)
A nondescript defensive lineman early in his career, Antonio Smith has found his niche in Wade Phillips’ defense with the Texans over the past two seasons. The 6-3 274 struggles against the run, but is one of the best pass rushing 5-technique defensive ends this side of JJ Watt and I mean that both figuratively and literally as he’s Watt’s teammate. Watt’s presence opposite him definitely helps, but he’s a great pass rusher in his own right. The only issue is he’s going into his age 32 contract year without an extension. The Texans pay just opt to let the aging Smith go this off-season, in favor of capable backup Jared Crick. We’ll get to see what Crick can do week 1, as Smith was suspended for the first game of the season for an attack on Richie Incognito of the Dolphins in a pre-season game.
143. WR Randall Cobb (Green Bay)
A 2nd round pick in 2011, Randall Cobb looks on his way to a breakout 3rd year in the league in 2013. He’ll be given a bigger role, taking over as a starter opposite Jordy Nelson, after ranking 11th in the NFL among eligible wide receivers averaging 2.26 yards per route run last season. He’ll need to become a better outside receiver and he needs to cut down on drops (of the 22 incompletions Rodgers threw to him, 11 were drops) before he can reach his upside. However, his upside is a healthier Percy Harvin and with Aaron Rodgers throwing him the football, he could put up huge numbers in the future. He also adds yards on the ground.
144. CB Ike Taylor (Pittsburgh)
Ike Taylor doesn’t get the recognition that teammate Troy Polamalu or former teammate James Harrison gets, but he’s been as big a part of why the Steelers have had such a consistently good defense over the past several years, as their #1 cornerback. He allowed less than 50% completion in each of the last 2 seasons. He’s helped by a strong front 7, but he’s a great cornerback in his own right. The only issue is he’s going into his age 33 season.
145. OT Andre Smith (Cincinnati)
Through his first 2 seasons, Andre Smith looked like a bust as the 6th overall pick in 2009. Work ethic concerns that surrounded him through the pre-draft process continued to rear their head as he was out of shape and struggled mightily with speed rushers. The Bengals exercised an option in his contract to void the final 2 years of what was originally a 6-year deal and that seemed to wake him up, as Smith got his act together and emerged as arguably the best right tackle in the game over the past 2 seasons. Fears that he would coast upon getting paid, along with an off-season arrest, forced him to “settle” for a 3-year, 18 million dollar deal this off-season, with no money guaranteed after the 1st season. We’ll see if that can keep him humble. One concern is that he was fined for missing off-season workouts for undisclosed reasons this off-season.
146. CB Chris Harris (Denver)
A revelation on the slot as an undrafted rookie in 2011, Chris Harris emerged as a starter in 2012, after Tracy Porter went down with illness. He was one of the better cornerbacks in the NFL. The Broncos brought in Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie this off-season, so Harris will go back to being a slot specialist, but he’s arguably the best pure slot cornerback in the NFL.
147. DT Randy Starks (Miami)
A consistently above average defensive lineman, excelling as a 5-technique defensive end and a 4-3 defensive tackle, the Dolphins franchise tagged Randy Starks this off-season. It was a smart move, as the Dolphins didn’t want to commit a long-term contract with someone going into his age 30 season, but they couldn’t afford to let him go. He’s been “benched” after an off-season contract dispute, but he’ll still play plenty of snaps for the Dolphins this season. The Dolphins just have a ton of defensive line depth. He’ll play as many snaps, at the very least, as any defensive tackle on the Dolphins’ roster.
148. TE Vernon Davis (San Francisco)
Vernon Davis averaged 67 catches for 890 yards and 9 touchdowns from 2009-2011 and was on his way to a similar season in 2012, on pace for 50 catches for 748 yards and 8 touchdowns halfway through the season. However, he really struggled statistically once Colin Kaepernick took over under center, catching just 16 passes for 174 yards and a touchdown in the final 8 games of the regular season. However, that was more because Kaepernick was looking the way of Michael Crabtree so often, as Davis was targeted just 24 times in those 8 games. He played much better in the post-season, with catch 12 passes for 254 yards and a touchdown in 3 games and with Crabtree out for most of the season, he should bounce back as a receiver in 2013. He’s also a tough, physical run blocker.
149. G Logan Mankins (New England)
Once probably the best guard in the NFL, Mankins has been slowed by age and injury over the past 2 seasons. He played through a partially torn ACL for almost the entirety of the 2011 season and missed 6 games and was limited in others with a hip problem in 2012. He’s now going into his age 31 season, but he’s still a more than dependable interior offensive lineman.
150. DT Vince Wilfork (New England)
Once arguably the best pure nose tackle in the game, Vince Wilfork has shown himself to be more than that since the Patriots switched to a 4-3 base defense. He struggled a bit as a pass rusher in 2011, but emerged as a true every down defensive tackle in 2012 after getting himself into better shape, displaying rare movement and pass rush abilities for a 325 pounder. He’ll be going into an age 33 contract year in 2014, owed 7.5 million, so he could be in his last year or two with the team, but he should remain an asset for the Patriots upfront.
151. QB Colin Kaepernick (San Francisco)
Colin Kaepernick has only started 10 games, including the post-season, but they were a very successful 10 games. He led the 49er offense to 28.8 points per game in those 10 games, about 5 more points per game than Alex Smith led the offense to in his year and a half as a starter under Harbaugh, despite a tougher schedule and less help from the running game, with Kendall Hunter getting hurt and Frank Gore slowing down as the season went on. Unlike Russell Wilson, he doesn’t struggle on the road. Unlike Robert Griffin, he doesn’t have an injury history. Unlike Andrew Luck, he didn’t commit a significant amount of turnovers last season. He’s ranked ahead of those 3 for that reason.
152. DE Carlos Dunlap (Cincinnati)
At first glance, it would appear that Carlos Dunlap has yet to live up to his rookie year, as he’s had just 11 sacks since his 10-sack 2010 season. However, he’s gotten consistent pressure all the while and held up really well against the run. He’s also seen his snap count increase in each season and the 6-year, 40 million dollar deal the Bengals gave him this off-season suggests he’ll see his biggest role yet in 2013 and beyond. Credit the Bengals for locking up a potential budding star before he breaks out.
153. OT Sebastian Vollmer (New England)
A talented offensive tackle capable of playing both the left and right side, Vollmer has settled in on the right side with Nate Solder at left tackle and is one of the better right tackles in the league. He’s a minor injury risk, having missing 10 games in 2011, and knee and back problems were part of why he had to settle for a 4-year, 17 million dollar deal with the Patriots this off-season, but he missed just 5 games in his other 3 seasons combined, so it shouldn’t be a huge issue.
154. WR Cecil Shorts (Jacksonville)
Despite playing with Blaine Gabbert and Chad Henne at quarterback, Shorts caught 47 passes for 774 yards and 5 touchdowns in 9 starts last season, which extrapolates to 84 catches for 1386 yards and 9 touchdowns over 16 games. He was also 8th in the NFL in yards per route run last season, behind Andre Johnson, Brandon Marshall, Michael Crabtree, Calvin Johnson, Demaryius Thomas, Vincent Jackson, and AJ Green. That’s pretty good company. Going into his 3rd year in the league, things are only looking up for him.
155. S William Moore (Atlanta)
One of the better safeties in the NFL when healthy, William Moore has missed 22 games over the past 4 seasons, since being drafted in the 2nd round in 2009. The Falcons gave him a 5-year, 29.5 million dollar deal as a free agent this off-season, which is right in that 2nd tier of safety contracts. It could pay off if he stays healthy, but it could also backfire if he finds it increasingly harder to stay healthy as he ages, as can happen with safeties.
156. WR Jordy Nelson (Green Bay)
Jordy Nelson caught 68 passes for 1263 yards and 15 touchdowns in 2011 and was on his way to an equally good season in 2012. Nelson caught 40 passes for 532 receiving yards and 5 touchdowns in the first 7 games of last season. That’s 91 catches for 1216 yards and 11 touchdowns over 16 games. However, a hamstring problem caused him to miss 4 games and limited him in the others. He’s an injury risk, after last year’s hamstring problem and a recent minor knee surgery, but he returned to practice 2 weeks before the start of the Packers’ regular season so I expect somewhat of a bounce back year.
157. S TJ Ward (Cleveland)
When healthy, TJ Ward is one of the better safeties in the NFL, a fierce run stopper who holds up in coverage as well. However, the 2010 2nd round pick has missed 10 games in 3 seasons and has injury problems that date back to his days at the University of Oregon. He’s undersized for how physical he plays at 5-10 200 and we’ve seen safeties have injury problems for this reason before. He’ll be a free agent next off-season and the 5-year, 29.5 million dollar deal William Moore got this off-season will probably serve as a template for his payday, provided he doesn’t suffer a serious injury.
158. CB Jason McCourty (Tennessee)
The Titans gave Jason McCourty a 5-year 43 million dollar deal last season, taking a chance on him developing into a #1 cornerback, rather than re-signing Cortland Finnegan. McCourty held up very well in coverage with opponent’s quarterbacks throwing on him and away from Cortland Finnegan in 2011, but he didn’t quite live up to that in 2012. Still, he played pretty well in coverage and was one of the best run stopping cornerbacks in the NFL.
159. QB Russell Wilson (Seattle)
Russell Wilson’s flaw is he’s nowhere near the same quarterback on the road. He completed just 63.6% of his passes for an average of 7.5 YPA, 11 touchdowns, and 9 interceptions on the road, a QB rating of 86.1. That’s opposed to 64.6% completion, 9.2 YPA, 17 touchdowns, and 2 interceptions at home, a QB rating of 123.6. I think it’s less than he’s an excellent quarterback who struggles on the road and more that he’s an above average quarterback who shows his true colors on the road. The Seahawks have the biggest home/road disparity over the past 6 seasons. Going back to 2007, they are 15-37 on the road, getting outscored by 6.63 points per game, and 32-18 at home, outscoring opponents by 6.32 points per game. Of course, you can poke similar holes in Drew Brees’ game and Wilson got better as last season went on, even on the road, so the arrow is pointing up. I’d still rather have Wilson over an injury prone Robert Griffin (though Griffin deserved Rookie of the Year) or a turnover prone Andrew Luck, at least at this stage of their careers. However, I have Kaepernick ranked above him for this reason.
160. DE Michael Johnson (Cincinnati)
An athletic defensive end, Michael Johnson set The Combine on fire with a 4.75 40 at 6-7 266 with a 38.5 inch vertical and 28 reps of 225 on the bench press, but he didn’t put it all together until last season. The Bengals franchise tagged him and didn’t put much effort into giving him a long-term deal, preferring to make him prove it again. After committing significant this off-season to Carlos Dunlap, a more consistent and well-rounded end, and with Geno Atkins heading into free agency next off-season and likely to be franchised, this could very well be Johnson’s last season with the Bengals. Still, if he repeats his 2012 season, he’ll get a lot of money somewhere next off-season.
Go on to 161-180