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.
121. OLB Tamba Hali (Kansas City)
Tamba Hali was one of the better 3-4 rush linebackers in the NFL from 2009-2011, after the Chiefs changed up their defensive scheme, but he struggled by his standards in 2012, not getting as consistent pressure as he usually does, exposing his flaws in coverage and against the run. I think teammate Justin Houston is the better and more complete player, especially with Hali going into his age 30 season, but Hali could easily have a bounce back year and the Chiefs have to be really happy to have both players.
122. G Kevin Zeitler (Cincinnati)
The Bengals made a surprise move trading down and passing on an opportunity to draft David DeCastro in the first round in 2012, taking Kevin Zeitler instead later in the first. So far, it appears to have paid off, as DeCastro missed most of his rookie year with a freak injury and Zeitler emerged as one of the better interior offensive linemen in the league as a rookie. DeCastro could still pan out and challenge Zeitler, but for now, the Bengals appear to have made the correct move.
123. DT Marcell Dareus (Buffalo)
The 3rd overall pick in the 2011 NFL Draft, Dareus has not been as good as the guys drafted around him (Cam Newton, Von Miller, AJ Green, Patrick Peterson, Julio Jones, Aldon Smith, JJ Watt, Nick Fairley, Ryan Kerrigan, and Nate Solder were top-17 picks that year and all are on this list already, with most ahead of Dareus). However, that’s not his fault. Dareus has been a very good defensive lineman in both a 3-4 and a 4-3 thus far in his career and, not 24 until November, Dareus still has plenty of upside going into his 3rd year in the league.
124. DE Michael Bennett (Seattle)
Bennett excelled as a situational defensive lineman in 2011, playing well against the run and as a pass rusher while providing the versatility to play both defensive end and defensive tackle at 6-4 274. Bennett took over a bigger role in 2012, leading the Tampa Bay defensive line in snaps and showing himself to be one of the best, most versatile, and well-rounded defensive lineman in the NFL. A shoulder injury forced him to settle for a one year prove it deal in Seattle this off-season and he’s since developed a toe injury, but the deal could prove to be a smart deal for both sides. Bennett could have a very good season for the Seahawks on the defensive line, for a very reasonable rate of 4.8 million, and it could very well be a launching pad for Bennett to get a bigger contract next off-season.
125. WR Reggie Wayne (Indianapolis)
Wayne turns 35 this November. Over the next 2-4 years, Wayne can be expected to go from top flight receiver to complementary player to gone. That’s just what happens to receivers around this age. Even the average top-20 receiver (in terms of yardage all-time) has his last 1000 yard season at age 34-35, averages 48 catches for 594 yards and 3 touchdowns for 2 more seasons after age 34-35, and is done playing by age 36-37. Wayne already showed some signs of slowing down in the 2nd half of last season, catching “just” 45 passes for 520 yards and 2 touchdowns.
126. RB Matt Forte (Chicago)
One of the best all-around running backs in the game, Matt Forte has rushing 5327 yards and 26 touchdowns on 1262 carries (4.2 YPC), with another 267 catches for 2325 yards and 9 touchdowns as a receiver in 5 years in the league and he’s only missed 7 games in the process. That’s pretty impressive considering the lack of supporting talent he’s had around him in Chicago and with an improved offensive supporting cast in Chicago, the feature back could have his best year yet in 2013, provided he stays healthy, as is always the case with running backs. Going into his age 28 season, there’s some minor concern that he prematurely ages.
127. WR Steve Smith (Carolina)
Like with Reggie Wayne, Steve Smith is an aging receiver who has had a great career. He’s a year younger than Wayne, but could just as easily begin his decline this season. Unlike Wayne, who is 14th all-time in receiving yardage and seems bound for the Hall of Fame someday, Steve Smith is 23rd all-time and is a much longer shot for Canton, especially given the strict standard for wide receivers.
128. OT Russell Okung (Seattle)
After an injury riddled first two years in the league, the 6th overall pick in the 2010 NFL Draft, Russell Okung, finally put it together in 2013, allowing just 1 sack. He did commit 13 penalties, but he’s still one of the premier left tackles in the game when healthy. I’ll need to see him do it again and stay healthy again in 2013 though.
129. RB Stevan Ridley (New England)
They certainly have the running back talent to do so. 2011 3rd round pick Stevan Ridley rushed for 1263 yards and 12 touchdowns on 290 attempts last season. The Patriots’ strong passing game and offensive line undoubtedly helped, but he’s still a good back in his own right. The Patriots hadn’t had anything like him at the running back position since Corey Dillon was in his prime. Before him, BenJarvus Green-Ellis was a plodder and nothing else. Before him, Laurence Maroney was inconsistent, ranging from solid to all kinds of crap. It hadn’t been since Dillon’s final season in 2006 that the Patriots had a back with Ridley’s explosiveness. He makes them an incredibly balanced offense, probably the most balanced in the NFL.
130. OT Nate Solder (New England)
A swing tackle as a rookie in 2011, the 17th overall pick saw significant action, playing at both right tackle and left tackle and wasn’t bad. However, when Matt Light retired this past off-season, Nate Solder took over on the blindside and immediately was one of the best blindside protectors in the NFL. Going into his 3rd year in the league, things should only continue to get better for him. He looks like a franchise left tackle for the next decade.
131. OLB Paul Kruger (Cleveland)
A solid situational and rotational player through the first 3 years of his career, the 2009 2nd round pick broke out in his first year as a starter in 2012, especially down the stretch, with 14 sacks in his final 12 games, en route to a Super Bowl victory. Of course, he only had 1 sack in the final 8 games of the season and really didn’t play well until Terrell Suggs came back from injury to take the pressure off of him. He’s signed a very lucrative 5-year, 40.5 million dollar deal with the Browns this off-season, but unfortunately he doesn’t get to bring Suggs with him. He could prove to be an overpay and someone who the Browns bought too high with.
132. CB Kareem Jackson (Houston)
For the first two years of his career, Kareem Jackson, a 2010 1st round pick, looked like a bust and was on the verge of losing his starting job. However, he turned in a fantastic 3rd year in the league in 2012. Not only did he keep his starting job, but he excelled, allowing less than 50% completion and taking over as the #1 cornerback from time to time with Johnathan Joseph missing time and struggling through a groin injury. With Joseph back healthy this year, the Texans have one of the best cornerback duos in the NFL and I won’t rule out Jackson becoming better than the big money Joseph sometime in the next 2 seasons. That could lead to a big payday for him either on an extension next off-season or as a free agent the following off-season.
133. C Max Unger (Seattle)
Max Unger signed a 5-year 25.5 million dollar contract last off-season, going into his contract year. That is one of the richest contracts for a center in NFL history and to that point in his career, it didn’t look like he deserved it. However, Unger broke out as one of the top centers in the NFL this season, so I guess credit the Seahawks for having the foresight to lock him up ahead of time. I’ll need to see it again, but he might be one of the top few centers in the NFL.
134. OLB Lavonte David (Tampa Bay)
Lavonte David’s rookie year was overshadowed by fellow linebackers Luke Kuechly and Bobby Wagner, but the 2nd round rookie was almost just as good. A true three down linebacker, David makes up for his lack of size with rare movement and coverage abilities. Going into only his 2nd year in the league, the future is very bright for him.
135. G Jon Asamoah (Kansas City)
The Chiefs had 6 Pro-Bowlers on their 2-14 team last season, which sounds ridiculous, but it really wasn’t. They’re a talented team, but when you are as poorly quarterbacked and lose the turnover battle as badly as the Chiefs did in 2012, that talent gets hidden. Jon Asamoah wasn’t one of those Pro-Bowlers, but he might have deserved to be. The 2010 3rd round pick is one of the better young offensive linemen in the league and could be even better in his 4th year in the league in 2013, which also happens to be his contract year.
136. DT Jason Hatcher (Dallas)
Hatcher had a breakout year as a 5-technique defensive end with the Cowboys last season, but the Cowboys will be transitioning from a 3-4 to a 4-3 defense this season, meaning Hatcher will be moving to defensive tackle. While he was a perfect fit for a 3-4 at 6-6 290, with the size to hold up against the run and the length, quickness, and pass rush ability to get to the quarterback, it’s unclear what kind of success he’ll have at defensive tackle. He should continue getting pass rush, but could struggle against the run. Then again, if there’s any 4-3 he’s a good fit for, it’s Monte Kiffin’s, which prefers movement ability over size.
137. WR Marques Colston (New Orleans)
Marques Colston gets a reputation for being injury prone and he has had a bunch of knee surgeries, but he’s only missed 10 games in 7 seasons and he’s been nothing if not reliable. With the exception of 2008 (when he played a career low 11 games), he’s caught 70 passes for 1000 yards and 7 touchdowns in every season of his career. Last season, he once again had big time production, catching 83 passes for 1132 yards and 10 touchdowns while not missing a game. He signed a very reasonable 5-year 36.3 million dollar deal last off-season, probably taking a hometown discount in the process.
138. DT Kevin Williams (Minnesota)
One of the better interior defensive linemen of his era, Kevin Williams could end up in Canton someday. However, he’s on the decline right now. The Vikings used a 1st round pick on Sharrif Floyd this past April, a sign that Williams is unlikely to be retained as a free agent next off-season, going into his age 34 season in 2014. The Vikings have also said they want to keep his snaps down to 30-40 per game this season, a steep drop from the 52.2 per game he played last season. He should still be an asset and an above average player for the Vikings this season, but he’s in the beginning of the end of his career.
139. OT Matt Kalil (Minnesota)
Kalil’s rookie year was overshadowed by all of the great performances by rookie offensive skill position players like Andrew Luck, Robert Griffin, Russell Wilson, Doug Martin, and Alfred Morris, but that’s just how it works with Matt Kalil. He looked every bit the franchise left tackle he was supposed to be when the Vikings took him 4th overall, after Luck, Griffin, and Trent Richardson.
140. QB Cam Newton (Carolina)
As a rookie in 2011, Cam Newton completed 60.0% of his passes for an average of 7.8 YPA, 21 touchdowns, and 17 interceptions, while adding another 706 yards and 14 scores on the ground. He led the Panthers to 25.4 points per game in the process. He struggled to start his sophomore season in the league in 2012, completing just 57.0% of his passes for an average of 8.1 YPA, 6 touchdowns, and 8 interceptions, while rushing for 347 yards and 4 touchdowns. The Panthers scored just 18.6 points per game in those 8 games. However, in the final 8 games of the season, he completed 58.4% of his passes for an average of 7.9 YPA, 13 touchdowns, and 4 interceptions, while rushing for 394 yards and 4 touchdowns. The Panthers scored 26.0 points per game in the process. The first half of last season looks like just a blip on the radar and going into his 3rd year in the league, the former #1 overall pick could have his best season ever. I’d take him over Kaepernick right now because Newton is more experienced.
Go on to 141-160