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.
61. MLB Sean Lee (Dallas)
A 2nd round pick in 2010, Sean Lee only fell out of the 1st round because of a history of injury problems. He had a strong first two years in the league and was on his way to a breakout year in his 3rd year last season, but injuries reared their head again as he missed the final 10 games of the season with a broken toe. Capable of being as good as any middle linebacker in the NFL aside from Patrick Willis, the Cowboys didn’t want to take any chances letting him breakout in his contract year, driving up his price, or letting him leave elsewhere. They signed him to a 6-year 42 million dollar deal with 16 million guaranteed and another 9 million available through incentives. It’s worth it if he can stay healthy, but we’ll have to see if he can do that.
62. DT Ndamukong Suh (Detroit)
As a rookie, Ndamukong Suh had 10 sacks as the 2nd overall pick in the 2010 NFL Draft, after recording 12 sacks in his final season at Nebraska, finishing 4th in Heisman voting and becoming the first defensive player in history to win AP Player of the Year. Suh won 48 of 50 votes for Defensive Player of the Year that 2010 season. However, he didn’t become a complete player until last season, when he drastically improved his run play, in addition to continually showing well as a pass rusher, recording 8 sacks and consistently generating pressure. He’s one of the top defensive tackles in the NFL.
63. WR Demaryius Thomas (Denver)
As so many receivers do, Demaryius Thomas had a breakout 3rd season in the league in 2012, catching 94 passes for 1434 yards and 10 touchdowns. Of course, an upgrade from Kyle Orton/Tim Tebow to Peyton Manning definitely helped, but Thomas was producing even with Tebow under center, catching 35 passes for 745 yards and 4 touchdowns in his final 7 games with Tebow, including playoffs, after putting early career injury problems behind him. There might be not a more physically imposing wide receiver this side of Calvin Johnson, and that’s saying something considering the physical gifts guys like Dez Bryant, Julio Jones, and AJ Green possess.
64. CB Joe Haden (Cleveland)
Taking over as a starter midway through his rookie year in 2010, the 7th overall pick out of Florida, Joe Haden, played fantastic as a rookie in half a season starting. He carried that over into 2011 and then again in 2012. He didn’t make the Pro Bowl in 2011 because he’s a Brown and he didn’t make it in 2012 because he was suspended for 4 games with Adderall and ineligible, but there’s no denying, when he’s on the field, he’s a Pro-Bowl caliber cornerback and he’s only going into his age 24 season. He’ll make a Pro Bowl soon and probably a lot of them.
65. DE DeMarcus Ware (Dallas)
A future Hall of Famer, DeMarcus Ware is coming off of arguably the worst season of his career. He wasn’t quite the same pass rusher he usually was and struggled mightily against the run. He also committed a position leading 9 penalties. He moves to 4-3 defensive end for the first time in his professional career this season and there are some concerns about his ability to play the run in that scheme. He’s going into his age 31 season so possibly last season might be a sign of things to come. He’s still a fantastic player, but I don’t have him as high at his position as other people do.
66. MLB Bobby Wagner (Seattle)
Luke Kuechly won Defensive Rookie of the Year last season and it wasn’t completely undeserved, but I think fellow rookie middle linebacker Bobby Wagner actually had the better rookie season. The 2nd round pick out of Utah State may have had fewer tackles than Kuechly, but he recorded a stop on a higher percentage of his run snaps than Kuechly (a stop is defined as a tackle within 4 yards of the line of scrimmage on 1st down, 6 yards of the line of scrimmage on 2nd down, or the full distance on 3rd or 4th down). Wagner led all middle linebackers with a run stop on 14.4% of running plays. On top of that, he started 16 games at middle linebacker, as opposed to 12 for Kuechly and played better in coverage. I don’t think either team would trade their young middle linebacker for the other, but I think Wagner is the better player.
67. G Alex Boone (San Francisco)
A talented collegiate offensive lineman, Alex Boone went undrafted in the 2009 draft because off of the field problems, which included, but were not limited to vandalism and alcoholism (usually at the same time). The 49ers converted him from right tackle to right guard last off-season and plugged him in at their hole at right guard, which seemed like a weird move because very few 6-8 players succeed at guard. However, it turned out to be a genius move, as Boone was one of the top few guards in the NFL, possibly even better than more heralded teammate Mike Iupati. I’ll need to see it from him again and he’ll need to stay out of trouble, but he had a fantastic 2012 nonetheless.
68. OT Michael Roos (Tennessee)
Overlooked because of his position, Michael Roos has been consistently one of the top left tackles in the game for many seasons and might even have an outside case at the Hall of Fame, considering how well he’s played. I don’t know a single left tackle in the game who has been playing as well as Roos has for as long. A 2nd round pick in 2005, Roos has started 127 games in his career and been, for the most part, superb. He only has 1 Pro-Bowl to show for it, but he made the All-Pro team 3 times, which is not only more selective than the Pro-Bowl and has a more educated voted base, as it’s voted on by the writers. Going into his age 31 season, Roos still has it going and should continue playing well for another 2-3 years. A decade as a top-3 left tackle should get you Hall of Fame consideration and Roos could end his career with that on his resume.
69. CB Lardarius Webb (Baltimore)
The debate for the top cornerback in the NFL is between Richard Sherman and Darrelle Revis, but, in 2011, Lardarius Webb was just as good, not surrendering a touchdown all season and establishing himself as a true top level #1 cornerback. He earned a very, very reasonable 6 year deal worth 53 million for his efforts last off-season. Webb was on his way to a similar season in 2012, but went down for the season with a torn ACL fairly early. It’s a concern because he has a history of leg and knee injuries. We’ll see how he bounces back in 2013. The Ravens won the Super Bowl without him and, with him and Terrell Suggs (more on him later) recovering from significant injuries, the Ravens could be even better defensively in 2013 than they were in 2012 (at least in the 2012 regular season) despite all of their losses.
70. DE Charles Johnson (Carolina)
Charles Johnson, a 3rd round pick in 2007, broke out in his contract year in 2010 and was rewarded with a 6-year, 76 million dollar contract with 32 million guaranteed. That was a lot of money to give someone who had just one good season to that point in his career, after 3 nondescript seasons to start his career. It was barely less money than former Panther Julius Peppers received the previous off-season from the Bears, which was at the time the highest paid contract ever given to a defensive player. However, the risk paid off as Johnson has been just as good in 2011 and 2012 as he was in 2010, if not better. He’s emerged as one of the top few edge rushers in the NFL, though he does struggle against the run.
71. C Brian La Puente (New Orleans)
A solid center in his first year as a starter in 2011, Brian La Puente broke out as one of the top centers in the NFL in 2012 in his 2nd season as a starter. It’s a long way to have come for the 2008 undrafted free agent out of California. I’ll need to see it again from him, but he could easily be one of the top few centers in the NFL.
72. TE Tony Gonzalez (Atlanta)
As sure fire Hall-of-Famer as a player can be, Tony Gonzalez will get in on the 1st ballot 5 years after he retires. He completely revolutionized the tight end position, ranking 7th all-time with 14,268 receiving yards with a good shot to finish in the top-5 when he retires. That’s by far the most of any tight end in history. Only Hall of Famer Shannon Sharpe also has over 10,000 yards among tight ends all-time. He almost retired this off-season, but he decided to return and give it one last run at a Lombardi on the reigning NFC #1 seed. He certainly still can play, catching 93 passes for 930 yards and 8 touchdowns last year. He might not match those numbers, going into his age 37 season, but he’ll still be an asset in the passing game. For what it’s worth, he’s become a terrible run blocker as he’s aged.
73. OLB Jerod Mayo (New England)
A first round pick in 2008, Jerod Mayo has emerged as the top non-rush, three-down outside linebacker in the NFL, with rare ability in space and in coverage. He was a little out of position at 3-4 middle linebacker early in his career, but now that he’s moved to the outside in the Patriots’ 4-3, he’s arguably the best player in the NFL at his position after Von Miller, who rushes the passer on passing downs and isn’t a true three down linebacker.
74. CB Antonio Cromartie (NY Jets)
A solid #1 cornerback in San Diego, off the field problems forced him out of town, going to the Jets for a conditional 3rd round pick. With the Jets, he was one of the top #2 cornerbacks in the NFL, opposite Darrelle Revis. However, when Revis got hurt last season, Cromartie took over Revis’ role and all of his duties and looked like a mini-Revis, allowing fewer than 50% completion matching up with opponents’ #1 receivers. He was one of the top coverage cornerbacks in the NFL. We’ll see if he can keep that level play up again in 2013.
75. DE Derrick Morgan (Tennessee)
A first round pick in 2010, Derrick Morgan missed most of his rookie year with a torn ACL, playing in just 4 games. He returned in 2011, but was not effective at all, struggling to return from that injury and looked on his way towards being a bust. However, he turned it all around in 2012, capitalizing on his upside and breaking out as one of the best all-around 4-3 defensive ends in the NFL. He didn’t post huge sack numbers, but got very consistent pressure and played well against the run as well. As long as he doesn’t get hurt again, he should continue being the player he was supposed to be when the Titans drafted him.
76. OT Andrew Whitworth (Cincinnati)
The fact that Andrew Whitworth never made a Pro-Bowl until 2012 is everything that’s wrong with the Pro-Bowl. How are fans supposed to pick a left tackle when they don’t have an easily available method of evaluating left tackles? A 2nd round pick in 2006, Whitworth has made 102 starts in his career and few left tackles have been better than him as a pass protector over the past 3-4 seasons. Maybe only Joe Thomas has been better than him in that aspect. You can nitpick his run blocking, which is why he isn’t higher on this list, but he’s out there to protect the quarterback’s blindside. One minor concern is he’s going into his age 32 season.
77. G Andy Levitre (Tennessee)
As a free agent this off-season, Levitre got 46.8 million over 6 years from the Titans, which is a lot for a guard, but it’s still less than Carl Nicks, Logan Mankins, and Jahri Evans and Levitre is right there in that tier below them. The 2009 2nd round pick has never missed a start and can play left tackle in a pinch. His best position is obviously left guard though, where he’s dominated over the past two seasons.
78. WR Julio Jones (Atlanta)
Since 2005, 28 receivers have gone in the 1st round. They’ve averaged 40 catches for 557 yards and 3 touchdowns per season. As a rookie in 2011, Julio Jones caught 54 passes for 959 yards and 8 touchdowns, only behind draft-classmate AJ Green and Dwayne Bowe in that time period. He did that despite missing 3 games with injury. In 2012, He improved on that with 79 catches for 1198 yards and 10 touchdowns in 16 games. He’s done all of this before his 3rd year in the league, when receivers normally break out and, going into only his age 24 season, he should continue to get even better. He’ll forever be compared to draft-classmate Green and, while he might not be as good as him, few are.
79. OT Jason Peters (Philadelphia)
In 2011, there wasn’t a better left tackle in the game than Jason Peters, stout in pass protection, punishing as a run blocker, and the best pull blocking offensive lineman in the game. A 6-4 340 pounder who moves like the former tight end he is, Peters went undrafted out of Arkansas in 2004, but has blossomed in his new position in the NFL. The only reason he isn’t much higher on this list is he’s coming off a completely lost 2012 thanks to two torn Achilles. We’ll see how he comes back from that going into his age 31 season in 2013.
80. DE Anthony Spencer (Dallas)
On paper, it looks like 2007 1st round pick Spencer broke out last season, with 11 sacks, after just 21.5 combined in his first 6 seasons combined, but that’s the flaw with looking at just sack numbers. Previously a rush linebacker, Spencer was one of the best run stoppers in the league at his position even before last season and always got consistent pressure. There’s a reason he was franchise tagged before last season and then again this off-season. Last season, he was arguably a better all-around player than much more heralded teammate DeMarcus Ware. He’ll convert to defensive end this season, back to his collegiate position for the first time in his career. The Cowboys don’t want to give him a long-term extension, going into his age 30 season in 2014, but if he continues to play like this, he’ll get paid somewhere.
Go on to 81-100