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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.
101. MLB Brian Cushing (Houston)
The Defensive Rookie of the Year in 2009, Brian Cushing had a down year in 2011, thanks largely to a 4 game suspension for performance enhancing drugs. However, Cushing picked up right where he left off in his 2nd full season in the NFL in 2011, emerging as one of the top middle linebackers in the NFL, showing he wasn’t just a product of whatever performance enhancer he tested positive for. He was on his way to a similar season in 2012, but was lost for the season with a torn ACL week 5. In 11 games without him, the Texans ranked 18th in opponents’ scoring and 13th in opponents’ yardage, after starting the season as the top yardage and scoring defense in the NFL, a huge part of why they started 5-0. Part of that has to do with how poor his backups were, but there’s no denying that Cushing is one of the better middle linebackers in the NFL. Assuming he’s healthy, he could have a huge impact on the Texans this season.
102. WR Victor Cruz (NY Giants)
An undrafted free agent in 2010, Victor Cruz burst into the scene for the eventual Super Bowl winning Giants in 2011, catching 82 passes for 1536 yards and 9 touchdowns, after not catching a single pass as a rookie. Even in a “down” year in 2012, Cruz caught 86 passes for 1092 yards and 10 touchdowns, even with Hakeem Nicks struggling and missing time with injury opposite him. As a restricted free agent this off-season, the Giants opted to re-sign him to a very reasonable 6-year, 45.9 million dollar deal, essentially forcing Nicks to play out his contract year in the process. I think they made the right choice.
103. CB Champ Bailey (Denver)
One of the few players on this list drafted in the 90s, Champ Bailey, a 1st round pick in 1999, has made 12 Pro-Bowls in his career, a record for cornerbacks, and will probably be a 1st ballot Hall of Famer after he hangs them up. Going into his age 35 season, a steep decline in play could be right around the corner and his age 36 contract year in 2014 could be his final in the NFL, but Bailey is still playing like a #1 cornerback, at least as of last year. People remember him being torched in the playoff loss to Baltimore, but that was not representative of the type of season he had. Everyone is allowed a bad game or two. Bailey just picked a bad time for his.
104. C Alex Mack (Cleveland)
Any time you take a center in the 1st round, you have to hope he becomes one of the top few centers in the NFL. Otherwise, it’s just not worth taking a center that high. Mack, a 1st round pick by the Browns in 2009, hasn’t quite been that good, but he’s still a fantastic center on one of the sneaky best offensive lines in the NFL. He’ll be a free agent this off-season if not extended before then and whenever he gets paid, it’ll probably be somewhere in the neighborhood of the deals that Scott Wells (4 years, 24 million, 13 million guaranteed), Chris Myers (4 years, 25 million, 14 million guaranteed), and Max Unger (4 years, 24 million, 12 million guaranteed) have gotten over the past two off-seasons.
105. CB Patrick Peterson (Arizona)
Patrick Peterson made the Pro-Bowl as a rookie as a return man, but the 5th overall pick was actually terrible in coverage. However, that’s to be expected for a rookie defensive back and Peterson was light-years better in that aspect in 2012. He might not have quite deserved the Pro-Bowl nod as a cornerback he received, but he’s a supremely talented cornerback who just turned 23 and could easily emerge as a top-5 cornerback this season. On top of that, he’s a deadly return man, who returned 4 punts to the house in 2011. The Cardinals might not keep him in that role going forward, in order to avoid risking injury, but they’re also experimenting with using him on offense from time to time too so maybe they just want to get everything they can out of him. His skill set makes him better suited to play offense than maybe any cornerback in the NFL.
106. OT Jared Veldheer (Oakland)
The Raiders might be the worst team in the NFL. They really have two good players and that’s about it and when they lost Jared Veldheer with a triceps injury, they were left with one. Fortunately for the Raiders and for Veldheer, he’s expected to be able to return sometime later this season. Before the injury, he was one of the better young left tackles in the game and would have commanded a ton of money as a free agent next off-season if he had kept it up. A season ending injury would have been devastating, but if he can come back later in the season and show himself to be the same type of player, he’ll still get paid somewhere. I don’t know how the Raiders can let him get away this off-season. He could be franchise tagged.
107. OLB Justin Houston (Kansas City)
A talented pass rusher, Justin Houston fell to the 3rd round in the 2011 NFL Draft because of a failed drug test at The Combine, but he showed himself to be a very solid player in 6 starts down the stretch that season. He carried that over in 2012 as a full time starter, showing himself to be a good pass rusher and a better all-around player than teammate Tamba Hali. He doesn’t just get to the quarterback. He can stop the run and cover as well.
108. WR Roddy White (Atlanta)
One of the most consistent players in the NFL, Roddy White hasn’t missed a game since being drafted in the first round in 2005 and has had at least 85 catches, 1150 receiving yards, and 6 touchdowns in each of the last 6 seasons, averaging 94 catches for 1296 receiving yards and 8 touchdowns per season during that timeframe. Sure he’s going into his age 32 season and he’s going to start declining over the next few seasons and I’d rather have his teammate Julio Jones than him, but you can bet the Falcons are glad they have both.
109. DT Haloti Ngata (Baltimore)
A 6-4 340 pounder with rare movement skills, Ngata frequently leads the Ravens’ defensive line in snaps played and has the ability to play defensive tackle, nose tackle, and 5-technique in the Ravens’ hybrid defensive scheme. He’s coming off of a down season with shoulder and knee injuries, but he should bounce back in 2013. He’ll play primarily nose tackle for the first time in his career, but the Ravens will still get him in positions to rush the passer in sub packages.
110. OLB Lance Briggs (Chicago)
Arguably the best three down non-rush outside linebacker of the last decade, Lance Briggs has quietly built a Hall of Fame case next to Brian Urlacher in Chicago, making 7 straight Pro-Bowls, a streak that ended last season, and earning All-Pro honors in 2005, 2006, and 2009. He’s going into his age 33 season, but was still playing at a very high level last season, despite being left off the Pro-Bowl roster.
111. G Rob Sims (Detroit)
A 2006 4th round pick, Rob Sims broke out in 2009, but, because he had only made 31 of 48 possible starts from 2007-2009, the Seahawks dealt the injury prone left guard to the Lions for a 5th rounder, a 7th rounder, and a roster bubble defensive end, as a restricted free agent in the 2010 off-season. Sims was given a 4 year extension during the 2010 season, worth only about 7 million, but he’s greatly outperformed that in 3 years with the team, picking up where he left off in 2009 and staying healthy in the process. He’s quietly one of the best guards in the NFL and a rock on Detroit’s offensive line.
112. RB Chris Johnson (Tennessee)
He’ll never live up to his 2009 breakout year, in which he rushed for 2006 yards and 14 touchdowns on 358 carries, making him, at the time, the 6th player in NFL history to rush for over 2000 yards (Adrian Peterson has since joined the club). With an extra 503 receiving yards and 2 touchdowns on 50 catches, he set the NFL record for yards from scrimmage that year, his 2nd year in the league after being drafted in the first round in 2008. However, it’s okay that he hasn’t come close to that feat again. It’s really, really hard to do. It’s very possible that Adrian Peterson will never have a season like he did in 2012 either. Johnson is still a very talented running back, who has missed just 1 game in 5 seasons, totaling 6888 yards and 44 touchdowns on 1463 carries (4.7 yards per carry), while catching 230 passes for 1658 yards and another 4 touchdowns. He doesn’t do a great job of creating on his own and he does too much dancing in the backfield, but there isn’t anyone in the NFL more explosive through the hole when there is one. His success is largely tied to the play of his offensive line for that reason, but fortunately for him, thanks to off-season additions of Andy Levitre and Chance Warmack, the Titans have one of the best offensive lines in the game.
113. WR Dwayne Bowe (Kansas City)
Bowe has caught 415 passes for 5728 yards and 39 touchdowns in 88 games in his career, despite playing with Brodie Croyle, Damon Huard, Tyler Thigpen, Matt Cassel, Tyler Palko, Kyle Orton, and Brady Quinn at quarterback. No matter your opinion on Alex Smith, you have to acknowledge he’s the best quarterback Bowe has ever played with. Bowe got a 5-year, 56 million dollar contract this off-season, after being franchise tagged last off-season. That deal compares favorably to the deal Tampa Bay gave last off-season to Vincent Jackson, who, up to that point in his career, had caught just 272 catches for 4754 yards and 37 touchdowns in 92 games at a similar age, despite the luxury of Philip Rivers in his prime under center. Jackson received 55.5 million over 5 years. In 2012, Bowe could surpass his career highs of 86 catches (2008) and 1162 yards (2010), though the 15 touchdowns he caught in 2010 remain largely a fluke.
114. OT Eugene Monroe (Jacksonville)
He took a little bit to get the feel of the NFL game, but that’s nothing rare and the 8th overall pick in the 2009 NFL Draft has turned into one of the better left tackles in the game over the past few seasons. He did allow 9 sacks in 2011, but that had more to do with Blaine Gabbert’s inept pocket presence than anything. He’s going into his contract year without a new deal this off-season and, even after using the 2nd overall pick on Luke Joeckel, they can’t let him get away, even if it means they have to franchise tag him. Joeckel could be a very good offensive tackle down the road, but he can still be an asset for them at right tackle because of how many teams can attack the quarterback from both sides of the formation nowadays and the Jaguars are in no position to let a talent like Monroe get away. He’s one of just two Jaguars on this list and the highest ranked one.
115. DE Chris Long (St. Louis)
Chris Long has emerged as one of the best pass rushing defensive ends in the NFL, at times being the most efficient pass rusher in the entire league, but he’s always struggled against the run. Obviously, this is a passing league and getting to the quarterback is more important, but he’s not well-rounded enough to be ranked higher on this list. The 2nd overall pick of the 2008 NFL Draft, Long’s pass rush ability earned him a large contract last off-season, a 4 year deal worth 50 million.
116. C Ryan Wendell (New England)
Formerly a talented reserve interior lineman, Ryan Wendell broke out in his first year as a starter in 2012. He wasn’t great in pass protection, but there might not have been a better run blocking center in the NFL and that’s what’s more important for a center. He and fellow Fresno State alum (and fellow top-200 player) Logan Mankins helped pave the way for the Patriots to rank 7th in the NFL in rushing yardage. The Patriots averaged 4.7 yards per carry between the left guard and center this season.
117. MLB Daryl Washington (Arizona)
The Cardinals took a chance giving Daryl Washington an extension just two years into his career last off-season, paying him a total of 32.5 million over 6 years. However, it appeared to pay off last season as the 2010 2nd round pick blossomed into one of the best all-around middle linebackers in the NFL. Not only does he play well against the run and in coverage, but there’s not be a better blitzing middle linebacker in the NFL, as he had 9 sacks last season, after 5 the previous season. No team blitzes their middle linebackers more than the Cardinals and they don’t get a lot of pass rush from the outside, so he’s a huge asset to them. However, Washington has been suspended for the first 4 games of the season for violating the league’s substance abuse policy and he was also arrested this off-season on two counts of aggravated assault. That could lead to further suspension down the road when the case is resolved. He could be a slipup away from being cut, but fortunately the deal he signed is team friendly so they could cut him without much penalty in that scenario. Obviously, they’d prefer he stay out of trouble and on their roster because he’s a big time asset when on the field.
118. CB Johnathan Joseph (Houston)
Joseph was once part of a talented cornerback duo in Cincinnati with Leon Hall, but the Bengals opted to re-sign Hall over him. Joseph ending up getting even more money than Hall, the de facto #1 cornerback when the two were teammates, to take over as a true #1 cornerback in Houston, receiving a 5-year, 48.75 million dollar deal last off-season. In his first season in Houston in 2011, he thrived in the role, emerging as one of the true top level cornerbacks in the NFL, but he suffered a groin injury early in 2012, which sapped his effectiveness and caused him to miss a couple games with injury. He’s an obvious bounce back candidate this season and, along breakout star Kareem Jackson, he gives the Texans one of the better cornerback duos in the NFL.
119. DE Julius Peppers (Chicago)
A likely future Hall of Famer, Julius Peppers officially has 111.5 career sacks, 3rd most among active players, making him just one of 5 active players with 100 career sacks. He signed what was at the time the most lucrative contract for a defensive player in NFL history in the 2010 off-season, going from the Panthers to the Bears for 84 million over 6 years with 42 million of that guaranteed. He’s going into his age 33 season and on the decline, but he’s still one of the better pass rushers in the NFL.
120. CB Casey Hayward (Green Bay)
Casey Hayward might be the Packers’ 3rd cornerback, but because of injuries and how frequently the Packers are in sub packages, Hayward still played about 63% of the Packers defensive snaps. He was amazing when on the field and probably deserved to be the Defensive Rookie of the Year, even though he wasn’t a full-time player. Allowing 0 touchdowns to 6 interceptions and 44.6% completion, his 31.1 QB rating allowed was not the best in the league among players who played more than 93 snaps (Darrelle Revis). He also was not penalized all year and missed just 3 tackles. He could be a starter in his 2nd year in the league in 2013, even with two talented cornerbacks ahead of him on the depth chart and the future looks bright for the 2012 2nd rounder out of Vanderbilt.
Go on to 121-140