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.
21. OLB Clay Matthews (Green Bay)
All Clay Matthews has done since being drafted in 2009 is show himself to be a blue chip rush linebacker, getting after the quarterback at a high rate, but also playing the run well and dropping into coverage and covering a tight end when needed. He is credited with 42.5 sacks in 4 seasons and even his down 2011 season, in which he had just 6 sacks, is deceiving, as he was double and triple teamed more than maybe any edge rusher in the NFL, with no one even remotely of note opposite him. He also had a good amount of hits and hurries, despite that low sack total. Looking at his career numbers shows that 6-sack total to be an outlier anyway. He received a 5-year, 66 million dollar deal this off-season, going into his contract year, and he’s one of the few non-quarterbacks in the NFL deserving of that kind of money.
22. OT Joe Thomas (Cleveland)
I’ll get into this more when I talk about a couple of other left tackles in the top-20, but I found it hard to sort out the top of the left tackle list. Joe Thomas has been the best pass protecting left tackle in the NFL since being drafted in 3rd overall in 2007, but he’s not a great run blocker. Duane Brown has been the best overall left tackle in the NFL over the past 2 seasons combined, but I don’t think he was the best in either season, as that honor would go to Jason Peters in 2011 and probably Joe Staley in 2012. Jason Peters is lower on this list because he’s older and coming off a serious injury, but Staley has a very strong claim to being the best left tackle in the game. I’m nitpicking and putting Thomas just outside of the top-20, in favor of two guys who have been better all-around than him over the past 2 seasons.
23. TE Jimmy Graham (New Orleans)
The default top tight end in the NFL with Rob Gronkowski being a serious medical question, Jimmy Graham isn’t anywhere near the blocker Gronk is, but he’s just as good as a receiver. You can nitpick his blocking all you want, but his 2292 receiving yards over the past 2 seasons are the most in any two consecutive seasons ever by a tight end. Only 27 in November, Graham will probably be the highest paid tight end in NFL history when he gets paid and he’ll be an unrestricted free agent next off-season (though the Saints can franchise him very cheaply, unless he appeals to be tagged as a wide receiver). The receiving numbers he’s put up over the past 2 years as impressive for a wide out, let alone for a tight end. He’ll get upwards of 10+ million per year.
24. DE Calais Campbell (Arizona)
Then a freakishly athletic 6-8 290 pounder, Calais Campbell only fell into the 2nd round in 2008 because of a down final season at the University of Miami and a disappointing Combine, during which he “only” ran a 5.00 40 because he was out of shape. However, Campbell has grown into his frame even more and the 6-8 305 pounder has had no issue with motivation in the NFL, blossoming into one of the top 5-technique defensive ends in the NFL. He’s had 28 sacks in the last 4 seasons, while playing the run extremely well, and has not become complacent, even after signing a 5 year, 55 million dollar contract last off-season. He’s also swatted 18 passes at the line of scrimmage in the past 2 seasons, the most of anyone not named JJ Watt.
25. DT Gerald McCoy (Tampa Bay)
In his first two years in the league in 2010 and 2011, McCoy, the 3rd overall pick in the 2010 NFL Draft, played very well when on the field, but missed 13 games with injury. In those 13 games, the Buccaneers went 3-10 and allowed 30.2 points per game. In the 19 games he played, they went 11-8 and allowed 22.1 points per game. That wasn’t all him, but a lot of it was. He stayed healthy for the entirety of the 2012 season and had a better season than anyone not named Geno Atkins, better than Ndamukong Suh, drafted one spot higher than him, has ever had. As a result, the Buccaneers allowed just 24.6 points per game and went 7-9. I’ll need to see him stay healthy again, but I have no doubt that he’ll have another similar season in 2013 if he does.
26. S Jairus Byrd (Buffalo)
Byrd would be in the top-20 here, as the best deep safety in the game, but he’s dealing with plantar fasciitis which will either limit him or cause him to miss games this season. The problem crept up after he returned to practice from an extended holdout after being franchise tagged this off-season, yet another player to get hurt after a holdout and/or not play as well following a holdout. That being said, he deserves every cent of the money he was demanding (more than the 5 year, 41.25 million dollar deal Dashon Goldson got from Tampa Bay). He and San Diego’s Eric Weddle have a chance to be this decade’s Ed Reed and Troy Polamalu (though on more obscure franchises) and I have no idea why the talent scrapped Bills don’t want to commit long-term to him.
27. RB Jamaal Charles (Kansas City)
I can’t shake the feeling that Jamaal Charles is a top-3 back in the NFL in terms of talent. Yes, he’s had injury issues and has never been trusted by a Head Coach to carry the load, but remember who he’s had as Head Coaches, Herm Edwards, Todd Haley, and Romeo Crennel. Sure, he’s had just 784 carries in 5 seasons, but his career 5.8 YPC is MOST ALL-TIME of back with more than 500 career carries and the guys directly below him are either Bo Jackson or wore leather helmets. Why do his coaches never give him the ball?! You might not think things will get better with Andy Reid coming in, but, while Andy Reid hates to run the football, when he does, he’s faithful to one back and his playbook has enough passes to backs that Charles should be able to surpass his career high of 320 touches in a season. He’s my pick to lead the NFL in yards from scrimmage, like Brian Westbrook did under Reid in 2007.
28. C Chris Myers (Houston)
Once the top center in the NFL this side of Nick Mangold, Chris Myers is outside of the top-20 for two reasons. The first is that he’s coming off of a bit of a down season, which is a concern going into his age 32 season. He was still very good, but slipped enough that you can use his 2012 season to nitpick him, which, at this stage of the list, you really have to do. The second nitpick is you have to wonder how much of his success can be attributed to the Texans’ zone blocking scheme. Myers was just a 6th round pick in 2005 and didn’t have a ton of success before arriving in Houston.
29. DE Muhammad Wilkerson (NY Jets)
His breakout year was overshadowed by the play of JJ Watt and the Jets’ general ineptitude, but any other year, Muhammad Wilkerson might have been the best 5-technique in the game. A fellow 2011 1st round pick like Watt, Wilkerson showed all of that ability as a rookie, particularly in the run game at 6-4 315, where his run stop percentage of 10.9% was 3rd only to Watt and Justin Smith. He was also a very solid pass rusher when needed. I’ll need to see it again from him, but he has 1st round talent so I have little doubt he can continue this type of strong play. Not yet even 24, Wilkerson is going to get big bucks whenever he gets paid. He’ll be eligible for an extension next off-season, going into a 2014 contract year.
30. MLB Derrick Johnson (Kansas City)
I’ve mentioned several times throughout this series that no middle linebacker rivals Patrick Willis. Derrick Johnson is the only one who comes close. A 2005 1st round pick, Johnson actually looked like a bust early in his career, but you can credit two things for his emergence as an All-Pro caliber linebacker over the past 3 seasons. The first was the Chiefs’ switch to a 3-4, which allowed Johnson to move inside to middle linebacker, rather than playing 4-3 outside linebacker. The second was being put in Todd Haley’s doghouse in 2009, which seemed to be the wakeup call he needed. He would sign a 5-year, 34 million dollar extension the following season and even still appears to be drastically underpaid, compared to what other top middle linebackers have gotten on their 2nd contracts over the past few seasons.
31. TE Rob Gronkowski (New England)
He’d be a top-10 player on this list easily, if he wasn’t coming off 5 surgeries in a calendar year stretch. He’s still expected to be ready to go fairly early this season, possibly as early as week 2 or 3, so we’ll see what kind of player comes back. His injury history is concerning, especially considering he has a history of back problems dating back to his days at the University of Arizona that dropped him in the draft. However, he’s so good when healthy that even Tom Brady misses him. While Brady actually played better WITHOUT Aaron Hernandez last year, he played noticeably worse without Gronkowski last year. Brady completed 65.1% of his passes for an average of 7.6 YPA, 21 touchdowns, and 3 interceptions, while leading the offense to 35.8 points per game and a 7-3 record in the 10 games where Gronk played and wasn’t limited. In his other 8 games, he completed just 58.7% of his passes for an average of 7.4 YPA, 17 touchdowns, and 7 interceptions, while leading the offense to 31.6 points per game and a 6-2 record. He’s scored an absurd 36 times in his last 35 games and his 2011 numbers (90/1327/17) would be great for a receiver, let alone a 6-6 265 tight end who blocks like a 6th offensive lineman.
32. G Marshal Yanda (Baltimore)
Versatility is what gives Marshal Yanda the edge over a bunch of other talented guards below him. Not only he has been arguably the best guard in the NFL this side of Evan Mathis over the past 2 seasons, but he was a phenomenal right tackle in 2010, as well, arguably the best in the game. It has to be very nice for the Ravens to know that they can count on him to play well there if needed, but his best position is right guard.
33. QB Drew Brees (New Orleans)
The nit I pick with Brees to keep him outside of the top-20: his lack of road success. Brees owes some of his recent success to the Superdome. He’s never won a road playoff game. Since 2008, his road QB rating has been at least 20 points lower than his home QB rating in 3 of 5 seasons. And before joining the Saints, he was really not that great, certainly not in comparison to what he is today. Injuries weren’t the only reason why he was so available before the 2006 season. There’s no denying he’s an elite, top level quarterback, but I have Brady, Rodgers, and Manning (in some order) ahead of him.
34. WR Dez Bryant (Dallas)
As so many receivers do, Dez Bryant broke out in his 3rd year in the league in 2012, catching 92 passes for 1328 receiving yards and 12 touchdowns. The freakishly talented wideout was even better in the 2nd half of the season, catching 50 passes for 879 yards and 10 touchdowns, a sign that he could be even better in 2013. He needs to avoid mental mistakes both on and off the field, which is what’s plagued him throughout his collegiate and professional career, but there might not be a better receiver this side of Calvin Johnson than Dez Bryant when he’s going right. The best news for the Cowboys: he’s yet to even turn 25.
35. C Will Montgomery (Washington)
It’s hard to find many centers who played better in 2012 than Will Montgomery did. Breaking out in a huge way in the Redskins’ new offense, Montgomery was a nasty zone blocking offensive lineman and a huge part of the reason why the Redskins rushed for so many yards and were deadly on offense. I’ll need to see it from him again, but I’ve seen enough to put him this high.
36. CB Brandon Flowers (Kansas City)
How the Chiefs got 6 Pro-Bowlers without Brandon Flowers being one of them in 2012 I’ll never know. One of the most consistently top level cornerbacks in the NFL over the past 4 years, Flowers has somehow never made a Pro-Bowl, despite frequently matching up with opponent’s #1 receivers and holding them around 50% completion. The Chiefs signed him to a 5-year, 50 million dollar extension 2 Septembers ago and let Brandon Carr, their talented #2 cornerback, walk the following off-season, when he actually got more money from the Cowboys than Flowers got from the Chiefs. Considering Carr seemed a little overmatched at times in his first year as a #1 cornerback with the Cowboys in 2012, I’d say the Chiefs made the correct choice.
37. TE Jason Witten (Dallas)
A machine, Witten is one of the most dependable players in the NFL regardless of position. He hasn’t missed a game since his rookie year in 2003, signing a waiver to play through a ruptured spleen week 1 of last season and his worst season since his rookie year was 2006, when he still caught 64 passes for 754 yards and 1 touchdowns. Since 2004, his 2nd season in the league, he’s averaged 86 catches for 956 yards and 5 touchdowns per season and only going into his age 31 season coming off a career high in catches, I see no reason why that wouldn’t continue. He’s also been consistently one of the best blocking tight ends in the game. He gets overlooked because he’s so consistent, but you’d be hard pressed to find a better all-around tight end in the NFL over the past 8 or so years.
38. RB Doug Martin (Tampa Bay)
As a mere rookie, Doug Martin emerged as a complete feature back from the word go. He rushed for 1454 yards and 11 touchdowns on 319 carries, while catching 49 passes for 472 yards and another score. As is the case with all running backs, his ability to replicate that in 2013 is dependent on whether or not he stays healthy. He does have a history of injuries from his days at Boise State, but he was still an incredible find with the 31st pick of the 2012 NFL Draft, after the Buccaneers traded back into the first to grab him, jumping ahead of the Giants, who were ready to take him one spot later.
39. G Josh Sitton (Green Bay)
A collegiate offensive tackle at the University of Central Florida, Josh Sitton was converted to guard in the NFL, after being drafted in the 4th round in 2008, and has not looked back, proving to be an absolute steal for the Packers (what else is new?) in the process. Since taking over as the Packers’ starting right guard in 2009, Sitton has been one of the most consistently top level guards in the NFL. He’ll move to left guard this season, which is a risk because he was already established at his previous position, but it could pay off. He’s a tremendous pass protector for an interior offensive lineman, allowing just 9 sacks in 4 seasons, and the Packers need all the help they can get protecting Aaron Rodgers’ blindside.
40. S Reshad Jones (Miami)
A nondescript player in his first two years in the league, Jones, a 2010 5th round pick, broke out in a huge way in 2012, playing pretty much on the level of top safeties Eric Weddle and Jairus Byrd. Those other two are higher than him on this list because they have more than one good season under their belt, but the Dolphins are banking on him having plenty more seasons like he just had. They gave him a 4-year 30 million dollar extension this off-season, after just one good season. It’s certainly a risk, but it’ll be a relative bargain of a deal if he can keep this up.
Go on to 41-60