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.
41. OLB Aldon Smith (San Francisco)
Including playoffs, Aldon Smith has 37 sacks in 32 1/2 games with Justin Smith healthy, but didn’t record a single sack in the 5 1/2 games that Justin missed. Aldon is a very talented pass rusher in his own right, but when Justin is healthy, no top level edge rusher has as clear a path to the quarterback as Aldon. That has to be taken into account if we’re comparing him to guys like Von Miller, Cameron Wake, and Clay Matthews.
42. G Carl Nicks (Tampa Bay)
One of the best guards in the NFL, Carl Nicks outperformed superb teammate Jahri Evans in New Orleans and was paid accordingly, getting a 47.5 million dollar deal over 5 years with 31 million guaranteed with the Buccaneers last off-season. Unfortunately, he broke his foot and missed the final 9 games of last season. We’ll see how he bounces back, but we might have to wait as Nicks has contracted MRSA in his surgically repaired foot and is in doubt for the first month of the season.
43. RB Marshawn Lynch (Seattle)
A first round pick in 2007, Marshawn Lynch was given up for dead by the Bills, going to the Seahawks for just a 4th rounder. He struggled in his first season in Seattle, with the exception of the beast mode run in the post-season against the Saints, averaging just 3.5 yards per carry, but in 2011, he averaged 4.2 yards per carry on 285 carries with 12 touchdowns. In 2012, he improved that to 5.0 yards per carry on 315 carries with another 11 touchdowns as Russell Wilson’s arm and rushing ability took the defense’s attention off of Lynch. Everything has gone about as well as the Seahawks could have hoped when they acquired him in 2010, with the exception of a DUI last off-season. It looks like a change of scenery was all the 2007 1st round pick needed. His only real flaw is he’s caught just 51 passes in the last 2 seasons.
44. DE Justin Smith (San Francisco)
Over the past 2 years, Justin Smith has been more important to the 49ers’ defense than Aldon Smith. Not only is he a significantly better run stopper, but his ability to command double teams and free up space for Aldon is a big part of the reason why Aldon has so many sacks over the past few seasons. It’s no coincidence that when Justin got hurt last season, missing 2 ½ games and limited in 3, Aldon didn’t record a sack in his final 5 ½ games, after recording 20 in the first 13 ½ games of the season. As a result, the vaunted 49er defense allowed 31.8 points per game in those games. That’s slightly skewed by the fact that, with the exception of a week 17 game against Arizona, they faced all playoff teams in that stretch, including New England, Green Bay, Baltimore, Seattle, and Atlanta, but the injury really did hurt them. The reason Aldon is ahead of Justin here though is that Justin turns 34 this season and is coming off a serious injury. That has to be taken into account. There will come a time when he’s not Justin Smith anymore. The 49ers drafted Tank Carradine in the 2nd round for this reason.
45. DE Jason Pierre-Paul (NY Giants)
On paper, JPP regressed off a breakout 2011 in 2012, recording just 7 sacks after 17 the previous season, but when you take into accounts hits and hurries, he was actually a more efficient pass rusher in 2012 than 2011. On top of that, he was one of the best players at his position in the NFL against the run. Only going into his age 24 season, JPP still has limitless upside and is a true blue chipper. Unless he’s slowed down by the back surgery he had this off-season, expect a significant uptick in sacks this season. He’s returned to practice already and is tentatively expected to be in the lineup week 1, though he might not play a full set of snaps.
46. G Mike Iupati (San Francisco)
A small schooler from Idaho who drew comparisons to Hall of Famer Larry Allen, Mike Iupati was drafted by the 49ers 17th overall in 2010. He wasn’t bad at all in his first 2 years in the league, but broke out last year in his 3rd year in the league, showing his upside and showing why he was drafted so high and why he drew such lofty comparisons. Only 26, Iupati still has room to grow as a player. I don’t know if he’ll ever be Larry Allen, but he’s already one of the top guards in the NFL.
47. RB CJ Spiller (Buffalo)
Spiller could easily be top-10 on this list next year and a legitimate challenger to Adrian Peterson as the top running back in the NFL. Adrian Peterson wasn’t the only running back in the NFL in exceed 6.0 yards per carry last season. Spiller did so as well, though he did it on 207 carries, 141 fewer than Peterson. Still, Spiller rushed for 1244 yards and 6 touchdowns. Only Adrian Peterson had more than his 12 runs of 20+. Including his receiving yardage, Spiller was 6th in the NFL in yards from scrimmage, despite just 250 touches. This season, he’ll be in for a monster workload, with backup Fred Jackson aging and new Head Coach Doug Marrone instituting a run heavy offense. He’s never taken on a huge workload at any level, so that’s the concern, but if he can stay effective and healthy over 350+ touches, he’ll probably lead the NFL in yards from scrimmage. For what it’s worth, though he was billed as someone who could struggle with injuries as a pro because of his size at 5-11 200, Spiller has missed just 2 games in his 3 year career, since the Bills took him 9th overall in 2010.
48. WR Larry Fitzgerald (Arizona)
One of the great receivers of his generation, Larry Fitzgerald has sadly never really had great quarterback play, except for those couple Warner years, but he’s always produced. From 2005-2011, Fitzgerald averaged 94 catches for 1309 yards and 10 touchdowns per 16 games. Last year, however, was too much for even him to handle as Arizona’s pathetic quarterback play limited him to 71 catches for 798 yards and a career low 4 touchdowns. He’ll probably bounce back this year. Carson Palmer isn’t a great quarterback by any stretch of the imagination, but he can get the ball to Fitzgerald. It is fair to knock Fitzgerald down a little bit off of last season though. Teammate Andre Roberts almost out-produced him, catching 64 catches for 759 yards and 5 touchdowns and doing so on 40 fewer targets and 80 fewer pass snaps.
49. G Jahri Evans (New Orleans)
I’ve mentioned his former teammate Carl Nicks already, but Evans is no slouch either. He doesn’t have the average yearly salary that Nicks does, and rightfully so, but he signed a 7-year, 56.7 million dollar deal 3 off-seasons ago that has a higher maximum value than Nicks’ and he’s one of the few guards in the NFL worth that kind of money. Along with teammates Brian La Puente and Ben Grubbs, also high on this list, the Saints might have the best interior offensive line in football.
50. OT Ryan Clady (Denver)
He struggled in 2011 with Tim Tebow taking by far longer than any quarterback in the NFL to get rid of the ball, but that’s not totally his fault. He’s otherwise always been very good since being inserted at left tackle immediately as the 12th overall pick in 2008. A strong contract year in 2012 led to a 5 year, 52.5 million dollar extension, which he received this off-season after being franchise tagged. He owes about 10% of that to Peyton Manning, who has the easiest blindside in the NFL to protect, but he’s a very good left tackle in his own right and top level blindside protectors do not come cheap.
51. C Ryan Kalil (Carolina)
Arguably the top center in the NFL at one point, Kalil is a little farther down on this list than that would suggest because he missed the final 11 games of last season with a Lisfranc injury. We’ll see how he returns, but he should be fine and his presence will be a welcome sight for a Carolina offensive line that struggled without him last season. His return is part of the reason why I like Carolina as a breakout team this year. Kalil signed the richest contract ever by a center 2 off-seasons ago, getting 49 million over 6 years after being a rare center who got franchise tagged.
52. MLB NaVorro Bowman (San Francisco)
A 3rd round pick in 2010 out of Penn State, NaVorro Bowman has developed to the point where the 49ers sometimes leave him on the field instead of Patrick Willis in packages with 6+ defensive backs. He’s not better than Willis, but he’s firmly in that 2nd tier below him. His 5-year, 45.25 million dollar extension, signed last off-season after just 2 years in the league, is barely less than the 5-year, 50 million dollar extension Willis signed in 2010. However, that has more to do with Willis’ deal being a forward thinking bargain than anything. When you compare Bowman to other middle linebackers who have gotten similar contracts, Jon Beason, David Harris, James Laurinaitis, Lawrence Timmons, Bowman is better than all of them.
53. RB Ray Rice (Baltimore)
There isn’t a more well-rounded and durable running back in the NFL than Ray Rice. In 4 years as a starter, Rice hasn’t missed a game and has totaled 5066 rushing yards and 33 touchdowns on 1109 carries. On top of that, he has averaged 69.5 catches per season, totaling 278 catches for 2440 yards and another 6 touchdowns. Few running backs are worth the kind of contract Ray Rice got last off-season, 35 million over 5 years with 21 million guaranteed, but Rice is because of his durability and versatility.
54. WR Brandon Marshall (Chicago)
Since breaking out in 2007, in his 2nd year after being a 4th round pick out of Central Florida, Marshall has caught 592 passes for 7446 yards and 43 touchdowns in 6 seasons, despite playing with Jay Cutler, Kyle Orton, Tim Tebow, Chad Henne, and Matt Moore under center. The reason he isn’t higher is because he’s been traded twice and didn’t net his former team a first rounder in either deal. He tends to wear out his welcome in places after a few years with all of his shenanigans.
55. QB Eli Manning (NY Giants)
Eli Manning threw for 4933 yards in 2011, but other than that, he has never thrown for more than 4021 yards in his career. He’s put up “only” above average numbers in his career, completing 58.6% of his passes for an average of 7.1 YPA, 211 touchdowns, and 144 interceptions, but he’s also gotten hot and led his team to two Super Bowl titles. That can’t be ignored. I’ll take the consistent excellence of Tom Brady or Aaron Rodgers or Drew Brees or even brother Peyton Manning over him, but he’s on top of that next tier.
56. OT D’Brickashaw Ferguson (NY Jets)
He gets lost in the media circus that is the Jets, but Ferguson is one of a few true blue chip talents the Jets have on their roster. I’ve already detailed Antonio Cromartie, but they also have another two in the top-40. Oddly enough, they don’t have a single other player in the rest of the top-200 and after those 4, can you really count on anyone else on their roster as a starter? It’s a very top heavy roster. But I digress. Ferguson, the 4th overall pick in the 2006 NFL Draft, has been everything he was supposed to be and is a blue chipper at one of the most important positions in football. Hopefully someday he’ll have a real quarterback to protect.
57. RB Alfred Morris (Washington)
Mike Shanahan’s latest running back find, Alfred Morris channeled his inner Terrell Davis as a mere 6th round rookie in 2012, rushing for 1613 yards and 13 touchdowns on 335 carries. There are 3 concerns here though, which is why he isn’t higher. One, he doesn’t provide anything in the air, catching just 11 passes all year. Two, it’s fair to wonder, considering Shanahan’s history, if Morris is more a product of the zone blocking system than anything. Three, it’s also fair to wonder how much of his success Morris owes to Robert Griffin’s ability to take off and run. We’ve seen time and time again backs perform better with mobile quarterbacks by their side, from LeSean McCoy/Michael Vick to Chris Johnson/Vince Young to Willis McGahee/Tim Tebow to Marshawn Lynch/Russell Wilson. Morris averaged just 3.2 yards per carry in his one game without Griffin last season. I’ll also need to see it again from him.
58. DT Nick Fairley (Detroit)
Yes, Nick Fairley ahead of Ndamukong Suh. Fairley actually played better than Suh last season when he was on the field, but he didn’t start the season as a starter and made just 7 starts all season. He started his final 5 games before missing 3 games with a shoulder problem, a shame considering he was playing as well as anyone in football before he got hurt. He’ll be the full-time starter this year, his first year as a full-time starter since being drafted 13th in 2011. He had top-3 talent, but fell because of lack of scheme versatility and off the field problems. If he can stay motivated and stay healthy (he’s missed 9 games in his first 2 seasons with injuries), and stay out of trouble (he’s a strike away from a significant suspension), he can be as good as any defensive tackle this side of Geno Atkins. You can bet the Lions are happy to have both him and Suh, the best defensive tackle duo in the NFL bar none, but I think Fairley is a little better than Suh right now.
59. CB Charles Tillman (Chicago)
Charles Tillman is best known for being great at forcing fumbles, but he’s a very strong cornerback in coverage as well. He did force 10 fumbles last season, but he won’t do that again. That kind of thing is very fluky and, while I do believe that Tillman has special fumble forcing abilities, he had forced just 7 in the previous 2 seasons and had never once gone above 6 before last season. However, he’ll still be a tremendous asset in coverage, even in his age 32 season. He’ll be a free agent this off-season so the Bears will have a big decision to make.
60. DE Greg Hardy (Carolina)
Though he only had 4 sacks, Greg Hardy had a very strong first year as a starter in 2011, getting consistent pressure and playing the run well, but that was nothing compared to 2012, when he upped his sack total to 11 and showed himself to be arguably the most well rounded defensive end in the NFL. At 6-4 290, he has the ability to line up inside on passing downs and essentially let the Panthers use 3 defensive ends at once. A 6th round pick in 2010 who fell because of work ethic concerns, Hardy has capitalized on his upside in big way as a pro. He obviously wants a long-term deal going into his contract year in 2013, but even if he doesn’t get one, he’ll get paid somewhere next off-season, assuming he keeps it up. The Panthers might have no choice but to franchise him.
Go on to 61-80