Top-200 NFL Players: 151-175 (2014)

This 8-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.

151. TE Julius Thomas (Denver)

Last season, Julius Thomas caught 65 passes for 788 yards and 12 touchdowns on 436 routes run (1.81 yards per route run). He’s a solid pass catcher, but he’s a one year wonder (1 catch on 50 snaps in his first 2 seasons in the league after going in the 4th round in 2011) and he benefits a lot from having Peyton Manning under center. He’s also an awful blocker, grading out as Pro Football Focus’ 2nd worst ranked tight end in run blocking grade. He’s still one of the better tight ends in the league though and a serious matchup problem, grading out 3rd best among tight ends in pass catching grade.

Last year: NA

152. DT Kawaan Short (Carolina)

Star Lotulelei was the Panthers 1st round pick in 2013, while Short was their 2nd rounder, but Short is better than Lotulelei, not just because he ranked higher (13th to 16th) on fewer snaps (528 to 620), but because he was more well-rounded, while Lotulelei struggled as a pass rusher and excelled against the run. Short is an overall great player and could be even better in his 2nd year in the league in 2014.

Last year: NA

153. OT Jake Long (St. Louis)

Jake Long graded out as Pro Football Focus’ 7th ranked offensive tackle last season. However, he tore his ACL week 16 and, even if he is on track for week 1, he might not be 100%, especially not to start the season. It wouldn’t be as concerning if Long didn’t have an injury history. Long, the 1st overall pick in 2008, was arguably the best offensive tackle in the game from 2008-2010, grading out 10th, 2nd, and 3rd respectively on Pro Football Focus in those 3 seasons. However, back problems slowed him in 2011 and 2012, causing him to finish 20th and 46th in those 2 seasons respectively and miss a combined 6 games. Now going into his age 29 season, I expect him to be inferior to last season in 2014.

Last year: 192

154. MLB Brian Cushing (Houston)

Cushing is a dominant middle linebacker when he’s on the field. He graded out as Pro Football Focus’ 2nd ranked 4-3 outside linebacker as a rookie in 2009, after going in the first round, winning Defensive Rookie of the Year. In 2011, he was Pro Football Focus’ 3rd ranked middle linebacker. However, he missed 4 games with suspension in 2010, which put him behind the 8-ball and caused him to grade out below average. That’s the only season in 5 years in the league in which he graded out below average, but he’s missed 20 games over the past 2 seasons combined with leg injuries, which is a serious concern. He should be ready to go for this season, but he’s very injury prone and, even only going into his age 27 season, there are no guarantees that he can be as good as he once was, even if he stays on the field.

Last year: 100

155. OLB John Abraham (Arizona)

John Abraham was signed by the Cardinals to a 2-year, 4.6 million dollar deal last off-season in late July and he turned out to be one of the biggest steals of the off-season, grading out as Pro Football Focus’ 13thranked 3-4 outside linebacker last season. Despite his advanced age, this should not have been a surprise as the active all-time leader in sacks (9th all-time) and potential future Hall-of-Famer graded out in the top-4 among 4-3 defensive ends in every season from Pro Football Focus’ origin in 2007 and 2012. This issue is now he’s going into his age 36 season and he got arrested for DUI for the 2nd time in his career this off-season. He might not be facing a suspension, but he missed a lot of off-season practice while in rehab, which won’t help him fight off father time. His abilities could fall off the cliff this season, after he already showed some decline last season (as compared to 2007-2012).

Last year: NA

156. DT Terrance Knighton (Denver)

Knighton broke out in his first year in Denver, grading out as Pro Football Focus’ 9th ranked defensive tackle. He was one of 4 defensive tackles (Randy Starks, Marcell Dareus, Brandon Mebane) to grade out top-13 in pass rushing and run stuffing among defensive tackles. A 6-3 320 pounder with rare movement skills for his size, Knighton followed up his dominant regular season with an even stronger post-season, including a dominant, disruptive performance in the AFC Championship game against New England. He’s still a one year wonder, as he was pretty much just an average starter in the first 4 years of his career in Jacksonville, but he’s still relatively young (going into his age 28 season) so the notion that last year’s breakout season could become the new normal for him is hardly farfetched. He’s an excellent scheme fit in defensive coordinator Jack Del Rio’s system. Del Rio was the head coach who drafted him in the 3rd round of the 2009 NFL Draft with Jacksonville.

Last year: NA

157. DE Justin Smith (San Francisco)

Smith is one of the better interior defensive linemen of his era, grading out above average on Pro Football Focus in every season since their origin in 2007, maxing out at #1 among 3-4 defensive ends in 2009, 2010, and 2011. However, he’s an aging player, going into his age 35 season, who has gone from 1st at his position in 2011, to 6th in 2012, to 16th in 2013. He’s also seen his snaps go down from 947 to 840 to 796 last season and he could see closer to 700 this season.

Last year: 43

158. DE Mike DeVito (Kansas City)

Playing just 446 snaps, Mike DeVito was Pro Football Focus’ 7th ranked 3-4 defensive end in 2013, with no one playing fewer snaps than him and grading out higher, and he was 4th in pure run grade. In 2012, he was 12th at his position on 554 snaps, including 12th in pure run grade. In 2011, he was 9th at his position on 414 snaps, including 4th in pure run grade. In 2010, he was 8th at his position on 552 snaps, including 2nd in pure run grade. Somehow, only Calais Campbell has also graded out top-12 among 3-4 defensive ends in each of the last 4 seasons and DeVito is doing it despite playing only half the snaps. He’s the best pure base package player in the NFL.

Last year: NA

159. OLB Derrick Morgan (Tennessee)

Derrick Morgan has been the Titans’ best edge rusher over the past 2 seasons, but he could be adversely affected by the Titans’ scheme change to a 3-4. Morgan took until his 3rd year in the league to make an impact because the 2010 1st round pick got hurt as a rookie and then struggled upon his return in his 2nd year in the league, but he’s been Pro Football Focus’ 5th and 11th ranked 4-3 defensive end in 2012 and 2013 respectively, showing those first round abilities. He’s especially excelled as a pass rusher, while struggling against the run. Morgan played at around 6-3 275 last season and has slimmed down to 6-3 260 to play 3-4 outside linebacker this season, a position he has very little, if any experience with. Dropping into coverage and rushing from a two-point stance are both very new for him. Between the position change and the weight loss needed for the position change, the Titans are taking a major chance tinkering with a proven player with Morgan, as they are also doing with Casey.

Last year: 74

160. WR Michael Floyd (Arizona)

Michael Floyd broke out in his 2nd year in the league in 2013, as the 13th overall pick in 2012 caught 65 passes for 1041 yards and 5 touchdowns on 107 targets (60.7%) and 569 routes run, an average of 1.83 yards per route run. He was Pro Football Focus’ 22nd ranked wide receiver last season. He’s still a one year wonder as an NFL player, after struggling as a rookie, but rookie receivers tend to struggle anyway and he’s got a ton of talent. He could be even better in his 3rd year in the league.

Last year: NA

161. G Kevin Zeitler (Cincinnati)

A 2012 1st round pick, Kevin Zeitler wasn’t as good in 2013 as he was in 2012, when he graded out as Pro Football Focus’ 12th ranked guard. He graded out 27th in 2013 and missed 4 games. However, going into his 3rd year in the league, he could easily have a bounce back year. Either way, there’s nothing to suggest that he won’t have another solid year at the very least.

Last year: 119

162. DT Henry Melton (Dallas)

The Cowboys signed Henry Melton from Chicago this off-season, reuniting him with former defensive coordinator Rod Marinelli, but he’s coming off of a torn ACL and a rough start to the 2013 season, in which he struggled mightily on 125 snaps before getting hurt. He could return to form this season, back with Marinelli, and he’s still young, only going into his age 28 season, but ACL injuries are tricky. At his best, he’s a very good defensive tackle and the 6-3 260 pounder is a fantastic fit as a one gap penetrator in a scheme like Marinelli’s. He was Pro Football Focus’ 6th ranked defensive tackle in 2012 and 14th ranked defensive tackle in 2011 (grading out well above average as a pass rusher and below average as a run stopper in both seasons), after struggling on a combined 353 snaps in his first 2 seasons in the league after being drafted in the 4th round in 2009. A return to form would be much appreciated by the Cowboys, but it’s not a guarantee.

Last year: 86

163. OT Sebastian Vollmer (New England)

Sebastian Vollmer, who only played 516 snaps in 8 games before breaking his leg last season. He was dominant before the injury, on his way to probably the best season of his career in his 5th year in the league. He still graded out as Pro Football Focus’ 21st ranked offensive tackle despite the limited playing time. No offensive tackle played fewer snaps than him and graded out higher. Vollmer has been a very solid player since being drafted in the 2nd round in 2009. He’s been a top-21 offensive tackle on Pro Football Focus in each of the last 5 seasons, doing so in 2011 and 2013 despite playing 6 and 8 games respectively. The issue is he’s never played a full 16 game season and he’s missed 25 games in 5 seasons. The fact that he’s been this consistently good despite his inability to stay healthy is impressive, but he’s very hard to rely on.

Last year: 151

164. WR DeSean Jackson (Washington)

Jackson was Pro Football Focus’ 8th ranked wide receiver last season, catching 82 passes for 1332 yards and 9 touchdowns, all either career highs or tying career highs. He caught 68.9% of his targets and averaged 2.45 yards per route run, 6th in the NFL. However, the Eagles still cut him because they felt he was largely a product of Chip Kelly’s system, because of his inconsistent past, and because of his salary. The Redskins are paying him less money, 24 million over 3 years, so it’s not a bad value, but expecting him to be the player he was last season is a little short-sighted. From his rookie year in 2008 to 2012, Jackson maxed out as Pro Football Focus’ 34th ranked wide receiver. He’s not historically nearly as efficient as he showed himself to be last season. He could have another strong year, but I doubt he reaches last year’s numbers.

Last year: 194

165. C Evan Dietrich-Smith (Tampa Bay)

Dietrich-Smith took over as the starting center from Jeff Saturday late in the 2012 season and played solid in limited action and then graded out as Pro Football Focus’ 8th ranked center in 2013 in his first full season as a starter. He’s still just a one year wonder, but the Buccaneers are getting a steal by signing him to a 4-year, 14.25 million dollar deal this off-season.

Last year: NA

166. G Geoff Schwartz (NY Giants)

Schwartz is one of the most underrated players in football and the Giants got a steal getting him for 16.8 million over 4 years with 6.2 million guaranteed. He played well in 2010 with the Panthers, in 11 games at guard and 5 games at tackle. His composite grade would have been 5th among guard and 13th among tackles on Pro Football Focus. However, he missed the entire 2011 season with injury and was relegated to reserve work in Minnesota in 2012, impressing in limited action. In 2013 with the Chiefs, he played 549 snaps at left guard, right guard, and right tackle and his composite grade would have been 7th among guards and 15th among tackles, despite the limited playing time. Now that he’ll be a full-time starter, Schwartz has the ability to emerge as a top-10 or even a top-5 guard in the NFL.

Last year: NA

167. RB Giovani Bernard (Cincinnati)

Bernard only had 170 carries as a rookie, rushing for 695 yards and 5 touchdowns, an average of 4.09 yards per carry, but he also caught 56 passes for 514 yards and another 3 touchdowns. One of the more explosive players in space in the NFL, Bernard graded out as Pro Football Focus’ 4th ranked running back overall and their 3rd ranked running back in pass catching grade, showing himself to be an Offensive Rookie of the Year candidate. Bernard might not have quite as many catches this season in a run heavier offense, but there will be more opportunity for him to carry the ball in his 2nd year in the league. BenJarvus Green-Ellis is expected to be a non-factor this year, if he even makes the roster, and the Bengals will run more than they did last season.  Bernard is the lead back and could have 300+ touches.

Last year: NA

168. G Orlando Franklin (Denver)

Orlando Franklin will move to left guard from right tackle for the Broncos. That’s a risky move as Franklin was playing so well at right tackle over the past two seasons. The 2011 2nd round pick does have some left guard experience from college and left guard is generally an easier position to play, but Franklin was Pro Football Focus’ 12th and 17th ranked offensive tackle in 2012 and 2013 respectively and there’s no guarantee he’ll be as good inside.

Last year: 165

169. DE Cameron Heyward (Pitsburgh)

Cameron Heyward, a 2011 1st round pick, played 845 snaps last season and graded out as Pro Football Focus’ 19th ranked 3-4 defensive end last season. Last year was his first year as a starter, but he showed well as a reserve on 198 snaps in 2011 and 267 snaps in 2012, before breaking out last year. The talented 5-technique could easily have another strong season next year. The Steelers picked up his 5th year option for 2015.

Last year: NA

170. G Matt Slauson (Chicago)

Matt Slauson was Pro Football Focus’ 6th ranked guard last season. That was the first year he had done anything like that, but he also graded out above average in each of his first 3 seasons as a starter in the league from 2010-2012 with the Jets. The Bears got a steal signing him on a one-year deal prior to last season and they’re getting a steal again bringing him back on a 4-year, 12.8 million dollar deal this off-season. He hasn’t missed a start in the last 4 seasons and he should have another strong season in 2014.

Last year: NA

171. DE Rob Ninkovich (New England)

A lot of teams believe in rotating their defensive ends. The Patriots apparently don’t as both Rob Ninkovich and Chandler Jones were among the top-2 in snaps played by defensive ends. Ninkovich played 1112 snaps, missing 52 total, and playing an average of 69.6 snaps per snaps. Still, he graded out as Pro Football Focus’ 6th ranked 4-3 defensive end, including #1 against the run. I don’t know if Ninkovich can improve on the best season of his career as he goes into his age 30 season though. He was Pro Football Focus’ 36th ranked 4-3 defensive end in 2012, 10th ranked 4-3 outside linebacker in 2011, and 17th ranked 3-4 outside linebacker in 2010. The versatile front 7 defender has found a home for himself in New England, after being drafted in the 5th round in 2006 and bouncing around from the Saints to the Dolphins back to the Saints from 2006-2008.

Last year: NA

172. QB Tony Romo (Dallas)

Romo takes an unnecessary amount of heat. He’s coming off of a very strong season, completing 63.9% of his passes for an average of 7.16 YPA, 31 touchdowns, and 10 interceptions, a QB rating of 96.7. For his career, he completes 64.6% of his passes for an average of 7.83 YPA, 208 touchdowns, and 101 interceptions. He was Pro Football Focus’ 13th ranked quarterback last season, including 7th in passing grade. He’s graded out above average in 6 of 7 seasons since 2007, including 8th in 2007, 16th in 2009, 9th in 2010, 9th in 2011, and 10th in 2012. The concern with Romo isn’t a lack of clutch (whatever that means). It’s that he’s going into his age 34 season coming off of a significant back injury with his YPA declining in every season since 2011 (8.02 YPA, 7.57 YPA, 7.16 YPA) and his completion percentage declining in every season since 2010 (69.5%, 66.3%, 65.6%, 63.9%).

Last year: NA

173. WR Golden Tate (Seattle)

Golden Tate has never had a 1000 yard season, but he’s been stuck on a run heavy team in Seattle, since being drafted in the 2nd round in 2010. He caught 45 passes on 65 attempts (69.2%) for 688 yards and 7 touchdowns on 378 routes run (1.80 yards per route run) in 2012. In 2013, he caught 64 passes on 93 attempts (68.8%) for 898 yards and 5 touchdowns on 447 routes run (2.01 yards per route run). Tate will see plenty of single coverage opposite Calvin Johnson and could run 500-600 routes in a pass heavier offense. He won’t see any downgrade in terms of his quarterback’s passing ability going from Russell Wilson and Matt Stafford and he could easily have 1000 receiving yards.

Last year: NA

174. QB Ben Roethlisberger (Pittsburgh)

Roethlisberger’s 2013 season was right in line with his career averages as he completed 64.2% of his passes for an average of 7.30 YPA, 28 touchdowns, and 14 interceptions, a QB rating of 92.0. In his career, he completes 63.3% of his passes for an average of 7.85 YPA, 219 touchdowns, and 122 interceptions, a QB rating of 92.6. He was Pro Football Focus’ 11th ranked quarterback last season. He takes fewer shots downfield now under offensive coordinator Todd Haley, which has lowered his YPA, but he completes a higher percentage of his passes and has a better touchdown to interception ratio. Going into his age 32 season, he’s still capable of leading a team to the Super Bowl. One thing Roethlisberger did last season that was unusual is play all 16 games, something he had only done once in his career prior. He’s missed 17 games in 10 seasons and will probably miss a game or two with some sort of injury this season, as his playing style leads him to take a lot of hits.

Last year: 87

175. RB Alfred Morris (Washington)

Morris rushed for 1613 yards and 13 touchdowns on 335 carries as a 6th round rookie in 2012, an average of 4.81 YPC, grading out as Pro Football Focus’ 3rd ranked running back in terms of rushing grade. In 2013, he rushed for 1275 yards and 7 touchdowns on 276 carries, an average of 4.62 YPC, and graded out as Pro Football Focus’ 13th ranked running back in rushing grade. That’s obviously not a bad season, but he wasn’t as good as he was as a rookie. The good news is that he should find more running space with a healthy Robert Griffin functioning as a dual option at quarterback. The bad news is that Jay Gruden is coming in as head coach and wants to open up the passing offense. Morris has caught 20 passes in 2 seasons and has graded out below average as a pass catcher in each of his two seasons in the league.

Last year: 56

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