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.
1. DE JJ Watt (Houston)
At 23 years of age in his 2nd year in the league, playing with torn ligaments in his elbow, Watt had what defensive coordinator Wade Phillips called the “absolute best” season by any defensive lineman in NFL history. Phillips would know, considering he’s been in the NFL since 1976 and has coached DeMarcus Ware, Bruce Smith, Reggie White, and Clyde Simmons, who, along with Watt, have combined for 6 of the 13 highest single season sack totals in NFL history.
I haven’t seen as much football as Phillips, but I’m inclined to agree with him. While his 21 sacks don’t break the single season record, Watt had those 21 sacks despite being an interior defensive lineman, having to fight through more junk to get to the quarterback. You can’t say that about any other player who has ever had as many sacks in a season as Watt did last season. He also had an NFL record 15 batted passes and played the run incredibly well. His 57 solo tackles not only led his position and not only led all defensive linemen in 2012, but they came for an average gain of 0.16 yards by the ball carrier, best in the NFL among players at any position.
I can definitely understand why Phillips sees it as the greatest season a defensive lineman has ever had. He won the Defensive Player of the Year, winning 49 of 50 votes, and he should be the heavy early favorite to repeat in 2013, with another year of experience and a healthy elbow. He’d join Lawrence Taylor, Joe Greene, Mike Singletary, Bruce Smith, Reggie White, and Ray Lewis as the only players to win the award multiple times and join Taylor as the only one to win it in back-to-back seasons (he did it in a strike shortened season). At the end of the day, he could surpass Lawrence Taylor’s record 3 Defensive Player of the Year awards. Watt might not improve on 2012, but that will only be because it’s tough to improve on the best. There’s no non-quarterback I’d rather start a team with, hands down and he deserves to be tops in this list.
2. DT Geno Atkins (Cincinnati)
If it weren’t for JJ Watt, Geno Atkins would be getting a lot more attention. A 4-3 defensive tackle, Atkins was almost as good as Watt in all aspects of the game last year, recording 16 sacks in the process, an incredible number for an interior defensive lineman. While Watt pretty much broke ProFootballFocus’ rating system by recording the first ever 100+ rating in its history, Atkins had the second best grade in its history. He’s also been doing it longer as the 2010 4th round pick has been great for 3 years, even as a rookie when he wasn’t yet a starter. Going into a contract year, he signed a 5-year, 55 million dollar extension this off-season and he’s one of the few players in the NFL who is a bargain at that rate. He’s a defensive end in a defensive tackle’s body at 6-1 303.
3. OLB Von Miller (Denver)
I might have put Von Miller 2nd if it weren’t for his recent 6 game suspension. That’s concerning both because he’ll miss 6 games, but also because he’s probably a mistake away from a yearlong suspension. Still, he’s supremely talented and will be missed big time by the Broncos when he’s gone. He’s had 31 sacks in his first 2 seasons in the league, purely as a sub package rusher and, in base packages, he’s as good as any linebacker against the run and also holds his own in coverage. He was the only player to steal a vote away from JJ Watt for Defensive Player of the Year last year and rightfully so.
4. RB Adrian Peterson (Minnesota)
Adrian Peterson would be #1 on this list if I were more confident he could even come close to what he did last year in 2013. Of the 28 other players to ever rush for 1700+ yards in a season, only 3 exceeded their rushing total the following season. The average 1700+ yard rusher rushed for 615 fewer yards the following season. Sure, some of them got seriously hurt, but it’s not like it would be impossible for Peterson to do so and even when you take out the 4 players who didn’t make it to 200 carries the following season, they still averaged 474 yards fewer the following season. On top of that, those players also averaged 7/10ths of a yard fewer per carry, going from 5.1 yards per carry to 4.4 yards per carry. Now, Peterson is definitely not going to have a bad year. In fact, he’s still my pick to lead the NFL in rushing, but you can lead the NFL in rushing with 1600 yards. He’s the top ranked running back and offensive player though. He’s earned that.
5. QB Aaron Rodgers (Green Bay)
In his last 45 games, including playoffs, Aaron Rodgers has completed 1026 of 1510 (67.9%) for 12738 yards (8.4 YPA), 122 touchdowns, and 20 interceptions. He’s also rushed for 901 yards and 8 touchdowns on 175 carries in those games. He’s gone 35-10 in those 45 games, winning an MVP and a Super Bowl in the process. He’s the NFL’s all-time leader in interception rate and QB rating to boot. He’s the best quarterback in the NFL and will continue to keep this team in Super Bowl contention as long as he’s under center.
6. DE Cameron Wake (Miami)
Cameron Wake is the highest ranked of actually a surprisingly high amount of undrafted free agents on this list, but how he slipped through the cracks is the most baffling. Wake went to Penn State of all places, where he was a linebacker at Linebacker U, though he’d move to defensive end at times in passing situations. Wake was a final cut of the Giants in 2005 as an undrafted free agent and eventually ended up in Canada, where he converted to defensive end and had an absurd 39 sacks in 2 years and won Defensive Player of the Year twice. That got him back on the NFL’s radar and he signed with the Dolphins before the 2009 season. Wake was incredible as a reserve that season, recording a sack, hit or hurries on a ridiculous 24.6% of his pass rush snaps. He turned that into a starting job in 2010 and has emerged as arguably the best edge rusher in the NFL over the past 3 seasons as a starter, playing both rush linebacker and defensive end in the process, with 42 sacks in 3 seasons, including a career high 17 in 2012. On top of that, he’s excellent against the run.
7. MLB Patrick Willis (San Francisco)
I’ve said this a bunch of times throughout this series, but there isn’t a middle linebacker in the NFL that compares to Patrick Willis. You could even argue he deserves to be higher on this list for that reason. He’s been the best middle linebacker in the NFL pretty much 6 years running, dating back to his Defensive Rookie of the Year season as the 11th overall pick in 2007. He’s made both the Pro-Bowl and All-Pro team in each of his first 6 years in the league and, at age 28, he could conceivably do that over the next 6 seasons as well. I don’t like to call players future Hall of Famers before they’re 30, but Willis is a Future Hall of Famer, perhaps on the 1st ballot.
8. WR Calvin Johnson (Detroit)
Calvin Johnson broke Jerry Rice’s single season receiving yardage record last season, shattering it you could even say, as his 1964 receiving yards were over 100 more than Rice’s 1848 in his 1995 season. He actually surpassed Rice’s mark in week 16. However, it’s not a fair comparison. It’s easier to get open as a receiver nowadays with all of the rule changes. Also, Rice’s 49ers passed 644 times, as opposed to 740 times for the 2012 Lions. Johnson was actually only 4th in the NFL in yards per route run last season, tied with Michael Crabtee, behind Andre Johnson, Pierre Garcon (who ran a lot fewer routes), and Brandon Marshall. He’s still the best wide receiver in the league though. The 96 catches for 1681 yards and 16 touchdowns he had in 2011 seem like a statistical floor for him at this point.
9. G Evan Mathis (Philadelphia)
Of all the top-10 players on this list, Evan Mathis is by far the most overlooked, even by his fellow players, who didn’t even vote him to the top-100 players. He’s also never made a Pro-Bowl or an All-Pro team. However, he’s been by far the best guard in the NFL over the past 2 seasons, allowing 1 sack total (the only sack the 2005 3rd round pick has allowed in 53 career starts) and dominating in the run game. Part of the reason why he’s overlooked is because he wasn’t really much before coming to the Eagles in 2011, a solid starter in 2009 for the Bengals and a reserve in 2010. He played so well on a one year deal in 2011 that he was given a 5-year, 25.5 million dollar deal last off-season and he played so well in a repeat season in 2012 that now that deal even looks like a bargain.
10. QB Tom Brady (New England)
Even going into his age 36 season, Brady himself probably won’t significantly decline this season. He’s shown no significant signs of decline. Last season was the worst of his past 3 seasons as he “only” completed 63.0% of his passes for an average of 7.6 YPA, 34 touchdowns, and 8 interceptions, but those were still all at or above his career averages. Over the past 3 seasons, he’s completed 64.7% of his passes for an average of 8.0 YPA, 109 touchdowns, and 24 interceptions. His supporting cast could hurt him a little, but at the same time, no one has done the next man up thing in the receiving corps better than Brady. Remember, from 2001-2007 Brady had 5 different leading receivers in 7 years and only Randy Moss, who the Patriots got for a mere 4th round pick, ever did anything of note before or after joining forces with Tom Brady. Aside from Moss, those receivers were Troy Brown, Reche Caldwell, David Givens, and Deion Branch.
11. OT Duane Brown (Houston)
I’m giving Duane Brown the edge as the top left tackle in the NFL, as he’s been better than Joe Thomas over the past 2 seasons and more consistent than Joe Staley. A great zone run blocker in Houston’s system, Duane Brown is even better in pass protection. Sacks aren’t a tell all stat, but from week 16 of the 2010 season to week 7 of the 2012 season, he didn’t allow a single sack, 27 games including playoffs.
12. CB Richard Sherman (Seattle)
Richard Sherman/Darrelle Revis is the debate for the top cornerback in the NFL. I have Sherman a little bit higher only because he’s not coming off a torn ACL like Revis. Revis had been playing better for longer than Sherman before getting hurt so he has the higher upside of the two, when talking about their 2013 expectations, but few things are safer than a 25-year-old cornerback who has allowed less than 50% completion over his first two years in the league and 5 touchdowns to 12 interceptions.
13. C Nick Mangold (NY Jets)
Since being drafted in the 1st round out of Ohio State in 2006, Nick Mangold has been the best center in the NFL. He didn’t have quite as good a season as he’s used to in 2012. Minnesota’s John Sullivan was better, but I’m giving Mangold the nod for consistent excellence. When you spend a 1st round pick on a center, you have to hope he turns out like Mangold because it’s just not worth the pick if you’re just getting a solid starting center. Mangold looks on his way to the Hall of Fame. It’s a shame he’s stuck on the Jets right now.
14. CB Darrelle Revis (Tampa Bay)
Though he’s coming off a torn ACL, Darrelle Revis has allowed 153 completions on 371 attempts (41.2%) for 1946 yards (5.2 YPA), 8 touchdowns, 18 interceptions, while deflecting 62 passes, and committing 13 penalties over the past 5 seasons. That’s a QB rating allowed of 45.3. No one else even comes close to that and he does it despite shadowing the opponent’s #1 wide receiver on every snap, something that most #1 cornerbacks don’t do anymore. Apologies to Richard Sherman, but he’s the only cornerback in the NFL who, when healthy, you can legitimately build your defense around. Sherman is a safer bet at a younger age with less of an injury history, but at his best, no one is better than Revis. Players like him are almost never available and, when they are, they are usually sold for a price that doesn’t meet their value because that’s simply not possible. It was a perfect storm that led to the Jets trading him, the cornerback equivalent of Peyton Manning being available last off-season.
15. C John Sullivan (Minnesota)
As I said in Mangold’s write up, John Sullivan actually outplayed him last season. Sullivan has actually been one of the top centers in the NFL over the past 2 seasons, doing his best work in 2012, when he was a huge part of Adrian Peterson’s 2000+ yard season. Peterson averaged 6.4 yards per carry running between the center and right guard last season, even higher than his season average of 6.0 yards per carry. On top of that, he had just 12 combined allowed sacks, hits, hurries, and committed penalties, tied for best in the NFL among centers.
16. DT Kyle Williams (Buffalo)
In 2010 and 2012, Kyle Williams was one of the top defensive tackles in the NFL, with an injury plagued 2011 season in between. In 2010, he was a nose tackle who dominated on the nose in base packages, but also led the defensive line in snaps played and was very productive as a penetrating pass rusher in sub packages and obvious passing situations. In 2012, he was a defensive tackle in a 4-3 and appeared to be a better fit for that position, though he can play anywhere. This year, the Bills are moving to a hybrid scheme and he’ll play some nose tackle, some 4-3 defensive tackle, and some 5-technique defensive end. There might not be a more versatile high level defensive lineman in the NFL.
17. S Eric Weddle (San Diego)
This is the first and only Charger on the list, making the Chargers the only team in the NFL with just 1 player in the top-200. They’re better than teams like Oakland and Jacksonville who only have 2 because they have better quarterback play and because their top-200 player is ranked much higher than anyone on the Raiders or Jaguars, but it just speaks to the lack of talent in San Diego as a result of years of poor drafting by AJ Smith and poor player development by Norv Turner and his coaching staff. Weddle, however, is the best safety in the game.
18. QB Peyton Manning (Denver)
Peyton Manning surprised everyone last season, coming off of 4 neck surgeries, with a completely different team after being cut, completing 68.6% of his passes for an average of 8.0 YPA, 37 touchdowns, and 11 interceptions, all better than his career average. In terms of QB rating, it was the 2nd best season of his career, behind only his then-record-setting 2004 season, in which he threw 49 touchdowns. It’s possible that the addition of Welker can lead to an even further improved Manning, but I don’t find it that likely that Manning will surpass the arguably 2nd best season of his career in what is his age 37 season. It’s more likely that regression to the mean and normal diminishing physical skills for a 37-year-old who has recently had a serious injury lead to an inferior 2013 as compared to 2012 for Manning. Sure, Manning’s mean is still one of the best in the game, but I don’t buy that he’ll be improved over last season just because of Wes Welker’s presence on the slot. Aaron Rodgers’ and Tom Brady’s post-season success is the primary factor that puts than above Manning.
19. WR AJ Green (Cincinnati)
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, AJ Green 65 passes for 1057 yards and 7 touchdowns, the most receiving yards of any 1st round receiver in that timeframe. In 2012, he improved on that, catching 97 passes for 1350 receiving yards and 11 touchdowns. He’s done all of this before his 3rd year in the league, when receivers normally break out and, going into only his age 25 season, he should continue to get even better. He’s the best receiver this side of Calvin Johnson.
20. OT Joe Staley (San Francisco)
I mentioned Joe Staley in Joe Thomas’ write up. He was probably the best left tackle in the game last season, but he’s not my highest ranked left tackle because he’s only really had one season on that level. In 2011, his first Pro-Bowl season, he wasn’t really that great yet. I have one left tackle ahead of him because of his recent consistency and you can argue that Thomas is deserves to be ahead of him because of his longer term consistency.
Go on to 21-40