1. DE JJ Watt (Houston)
Watt didn’t get the attention he got in 2012 with 21 sacks on a 12 win team, when he won Defensive Player of the Year in his 2nd year in the league, but he arguably had a better season, even though he only had 11 sacks on a 2 win team. He’s the most dominant player in the NFL at any position and that includes Peyton Manning. Manning is obviously more valuable because of the position he plays, but no one dominates their position like Watt does.
Watt didn’t come close to matching the 21 sacks he had in 2012 nor the 15 batted passes, but he had 36 quarterback hits and 38 quarterback hurries (on 556 snaps), as opposed to 25 hits and 30 hurries the year before (on 610 snaps). Those 36 quarterback hits were by far best in the NFL. Only Robert Quinn with 23 even came close. As a result, Watt had a pass rush rate of 15.3% which not only blew out of the water the next best pass rush rate by an interior defensive lineman (Gerald McCoy with 13.5%), but it blew the 12.5% pass rush rate he had in 2012 out of the water as well. Sacking the quarterback is great, but getting to the quarterback consistently, getting in his head and hurrying throws is even better.
Watt didn’t match his absurd 17.1% run stop rate from 2013, but his 13.7% run stop rate was 2nd in the NFL among eligible players (percentage of run snaps in which a player records a tackle within 4 yards of the original line of scrimmage on 1st down, 6 yards on 2nd down, and the full distance on 3rd or 4th down). Watt also actually had a higher run grade on Pro Football Focus in 2013 than in 2012 and a higher grade overall.
Watt was once again both Pro Football Focus’ highest rated 3-4 defensive end and Pro Football Focus’ highest rated player at any position, doing so for the 2nd straight season. No defensive player in the NFL had a bigger margin between the player who was in 2nd place behind him at his position on Pro Football Focus than Watt in terms of raw numbers and only Quinn had a bigger margin in terms of percentage. He didn’t post the flashy numbers he did in 2012 or play on a good team like in 2012, but the argument can still be made that he played as well or better.
I argued he should have been Defensive Player of the Year again, even though he had no shot of actually winning. The voters hate voting for the reigning Defensive Player of the Year, as the only player to ever win it twice in a row was Lawrence Taylor and he did it in a strike shortened season. It wasn’t going to happen for the first time in a season of regular length with a guy who played on a 2-14 team and didn’t come close to matching his sack total from the year before.
Last year: 1
2. QB Peyton Manning (Denver)
Peyton Manning had a season for the ages in 2013. He set the single season record for passing yards (5477) and touchdowns (55) and had the 5th highest single season quarterback rating (115.1) in NFL history. You can argue all you want about whether or not it was the greatest regular season a quarterback has ever had in NFL history (and I do here), but one thing is for sure. It was definitely the best regular season by a quarterback in the NFL last season and he deserved to be the near unanimous MVP he was, completing 68.3% of passes for an average of 8.31 YPA, 55 touchdowns, and 10 interceptions.
However, he’s unlikely to be that good again next season for 4 reasons. One, it’s really, really hard to be that good. There’s a reason they’re called records. Almost no one ever does that. As good of a career as Manning had had, he’s “only” posted a QB rating of 110+ twice in his career and “only” posted a QB rating of 100+ five times in his career. He’ll fall down to earth just by the law of averages next season. 9 other quarterbacks have posted QB ratings higher than 110 in their career. On average, they had a QB rating of 97.1 the following season (I used 2009 for Tom Brady’s 2007 season because he was hurt in 2008). That’s very good, but if Manning is in that 95-105 range in terms of QB rating, it’s going to have a noticeable difference for the Broncos’ offense.
The second reason is Manning’s age, as he goes into his age 38 season. No one ever had a QB rating as high as Manning’s in their age 37+ season like Manning did last season, so we’re going into fairly uncharted territory. Only 3 quarterbacks in NFL history have ever had a QB rating of even 100+ at age 37+, Steve Young, Brett Favre, and YA Tittle. In the following season, those 3 quarterbacks combined to have a QB rating of 61.7. I’m by no means suggesting that Manning is about to fall off of some sort of cliff in terms of his abilities, but his age is something to be mindful of. As we’ve seen from a number of different great quarterbacks in their late 30s, you never know they’re going to hit the wall.
The third reason is the loss of Eric Decker. This isn’t as big as the first two reasons as Manning largely made Decker into the receiver he is today and Manning can definitely make do with the likes of Emmanuel Sanders, Andre Caldwell, and Cody Latimer in that spot, but that is a big loss. The fourth reason is simply that the Broncos should face a tougher schedule this season. Manning’s 2013, as good as it was, came against a strength of schedule that ranked 31st, according to DVOA. Even all other things the same, trading out the NFC East and the AFC South for the AFC East and the NFC West could lead to an extra loss for the Broncos this season and a few points off of Manning’s QB rating. I’m nitpicking, but you have to when you’re picking the best player in the NFL.
Last year: 18
3. OT Joe Thomas (Cleveland)
Joe Thomas definitely is the top left tackle in the NFL. Joe Thomas has been a top-8 offensive tackle on Pro Football Focus in every season since he was drafted 3rd overall in 2007, something no one else can come close to saying. He maxed out as Pro Football Focus’ #1 offensive tackle in 2009. He’s also never missed a game over 112 career starts. He especially excels in pass protection, which is more important than run blocking. Last season, he graded out 2nd overall at his position, but 1st in pass protection by a sizeable margin.
Last year: 22
4. DT Gerald McCoy (Tampa Bay)
McCoy was the 3rd overall pick in 2010 and he has immense talent. He was limited to 19 games in his first 2 seasons in the league, but he flashed when he was on the field in 2010 and 2011. Over the past 2 seasons, he’s graded out #2 and #1 overall respectively among defensive tackles and hasn’t missed a single game. He’s especially dominant as a pass rusher, with 10 sacks, 14 hits, and 56 hurries on 594 pass rush snaps (a 13.5% rate) last season as an interior defensive lineman, despite next to no help from the other Buccaneer defensive linemen. He’s the best defensive tackle in the NFL and the 6-4 295 pound one-gap penetrator is an ideal fit for Lovie Smith’s scheme, so he could be even better this season.
Last year: 25
5. MLB Patrick Willis (San Francisco)
Willis was Pro Football Focus’ #3 ranked middle linebacker last season, in what was the worst season of his career. Prior to last season, he had ranked in the top-2 among middle linebackers in every season since being drafted in the 1st round in 2007, including first place finishes in 2007, 2009, and 2012. The picture of consistent dominance, Willis has missed 6 games in 7 seasons, made 7 Pro-Bowls, 6 All-Pros, and somehow never won a Defensive Player of the Year award, which is a shame. Only going into his age 29 season, Willis already looks like a 1st ballot Hall-of-Famer and should be remembered as one of the best of his generation.
Last year: 7
6. WR Calvin Johnson (Detroit)
Calvin Johnson is one of, if not the best wide receiver in the game. He had a “down year” in 2013 with 84 catches for 1492 yards and 12 touchdowns, his lowest catch and yardage totals since 2010. That was really only because he missed 2 games with injury (after playing all 16 games in the previous 2 seasons). Last season was actually the best season of Johnson’s career in terms of yards per route run, as he averaged 2.72 yards per route run. He’s averaged 2.55 yards per route run over the past 3 seasons since Stafford broke out as a starter. Even in 2011, when the Lions had poor quarterback play, he averaged 1.87 yards per route run and graded out 3rd at his position. He’s been a top-5 wide receiver in the NFL on Pro Football Focus in each of the past 4 seasons, the only receiver in the league to do so.
Last year: 8
7. G Evan Mathis (Philadelphia)
Evan Mathis remained the best guard in the NFL last season, grading out as Pro Football Focus’ #1 ranked guard for the 3rd straight year. No one at any other position has graded out #1 in each of the last 3 seasons. The Eagles wisely snatched him up from the Bengals before the 2011 season, after he excelled as a reserve in 2010 and graded out as Pro Football Focus’ 11th ranked guard in 2009 on 648 snaps in 7 starts. No one played fewer snaps and graded out higher that season. He’s a better run blocker than pass protector, but he’s great in both aspects. He’s going into his age 33 season, but he should have another dominant season this year.
Last year: 9
8. DE Robert Quinn (St. Louis)
Robert Quinn was arguably the best defensive player in the league last season, finally cashing in on his 1st round talent in his 3rd year in the league, after getting drafted in 2011. He graded out by far as Pro Football Focus’ #1 ranked 4-3 defensive end last season. The only player who had a bigger gap between them and the player ranked in 2nd below them at their position on Pro Football Focus was JJ Watt. He tied for the league lead with 19 sacks, but that wasn’t all he did. He also added 21 hits and 51 hurries on 514 pass rush snaps, a 17.7% rate. Quinn also played well against the run as his 25 run stops on 312 run snaps gave him an 8.0% rate that ranked 14th at his position. As a result, Quinn graded out 3rd at his position against the run, which is part of how he was able to grade out so much higher than everyone at his position. He’s still only a one year wonder, grading out well below average in each of his first two years in the league, including 49th out of 67 eligible in 2011 and 57th out of 62 eligible in 2012. However, he’s naturally very talented so I won’t be surprised at all if he continues to dominate.
Last year: NA
9. CB Richard Sherman (Seattle)
In 3 years in the NFL, Richard Sherman has allowed 115 of 248 (46.4%) for 1621 yards (6.54 YPA), 8 touchdowns, and 20 interceptions, while deflecting 34 passes and committing 26 penalties. No other NFL cornerback really comes close to that, with the exception of Darrelle Revis, who has allowed 43.1% completion, 5.41 YPA, and 12 touchdowns, while picking off 20 passes, since 2008. Sherman is essentially Revis with better ball skills, less of an injury history, and 3 years younger, only going into his age 26 season. I think he’s the best cornerback in the NFL.
Last year: 12
10. OLB Justin Houston (Kansas City)
Justin Houston first proved his worth in 7 late season starts as a rookie, a stretch in which he graded out above average on Pro Football Focus in 5 of 7 games. Despite issues in coverage (worst ranked 3-4 outside linebacker in coverage in 2011), he still graded out 13th at his position that season on 773 snaps, including 10th as a pass rusher and 5th as a run stopper. That allowed Houston to lock down the starting job going into 2012, which was his breakout year on an otherwise abysmal 2-14 Chiefs team. He was Pro Football Focus’ 4th ranked 3-4 outside linebacker, grading out above average in coverage, as a pass rusher, and against the run, while committing just 1 penalty all season. Houston continued his strong play in 2013, which was his best season as a pro. Despite missing 5 ½ games with an injury, Houston still graded out as Pro Football Focus’ #1 ranked 3-4 outside linebacker and would have been in the running for Defensive Player of the Year had he stayed healthy.
Last year: 106
11. DE Cameron Wake (Miami)
Wake was Pro Football Focus’ 3rd ranked 4-3 defensive end last season, arguably the worst season of his career. He was #1 among 4-3 defensive ends in 2012, #1 among 3-4 outside linebackers in 2011, and #3 among 3-4 outside linebackers in 2010. Even in 2009, his first year in the league coming over from Canada, he would have been Pro Football Focus’ #3 ranked 4-3 defensive end if he had been eligible, despite playing just 167 snaps. No one played fewer snaps than him and graded out higher and he had an absurd 7 sacks 6 hits, and 20 hurries on 134 pass rush snaps, a rate of 24.6%, meaning he disrupted the quarterback on about a quarter of his snaps. He’s a dominant pass rusher who holds up against the run at 6-2 241 as well. Last season, he graded out 2nd at his position in pure pass rush grade, with 10 sacks, 20 hits, and 41 hurries on 416 pass rush snaps, a very impressive rate of 17.1%. The fact that he showed slight decline in general last season, hampered by a knee injury, now going into his age 32 season, is a minor concern, but I fully expect him to be one of the top few edge rushers in the NFL again this season.
Last year: 6
12. CB Darrelle Revis (New England)
It’s a popular narrative that Revis Island is “done” after Revis tore his ACL in 2012 and then got cut by the Buccaneers after 1 year with the team. However, he was cut because he wasn’t worth his 16 million dollar salary to a Tampa Bay team that is transitioning to more zone coverage, not because he played poorly. He’s well worth the 12 million the Patriots are paying him this season to play in their man coverage based coverage scheme. In 4 of his last 5 healthy seasons, he’s graded out in the top-3 on Pro Football Focus among cornerbacks (he was #8 in the other season). That includes a 2013 season in which he graded out #1 among cornerbacks, fueled by a first place finish in yards allowed per coverage snap, despite a poor pass rush in front of him. People still don’t throw on Revis. Another year removed from his injury, Revis should only be better in 2014. Since 2008, Revis has allowed 43.1% completion, 5.41 YPA, and 12 touchdowns, while picking off 20 passes, a QB rating allowed of 50.5. He essentially turns every quarterback who dares to throw on him into a drunken Mark Sanchez.
Last year: 14
13. QB Aaron Rodgers (Green Bay)
The Packers are perennially one of the most injury prone teams in the NFL, but, with the exception of last season, they’ve always been able to have success. Last season, their stabilizer, quarterback Aaron Rodgers, missed essentially 8 games (he had 2 attempts in their week 9 game against the Bears before breaking his collarbone). The Packers went 6-2 in the 8 regular season games that Rodgers played and then they lost by a mere field goal in their playoff game against the 49ers with Rodgers. That’s opposed to 2-5-1 in the 8 games that Rodgers missed. Over the past 5 seasons, Rodgers has played 71 games (only missing 2 games combined from 2009-2012) and completed 66.5% of his passes for an average of 8.40 YPA, 159 touchdowns, and 38 interceptions, a QB rating of 108.2. He’s also rushed for 1308 yards and 14 touchdowns on 266 carries, an average of 4.92 YPC. He was Pro Football Focus’ 8th ranked quarterback last season despite missing half the season, with no one grading out higher at the position and playing fewer snaps. From 2009-2012, he was a top-5 quarterback on Pro Football Focus in all 4 seasons. Only Drew Brees also did that. As long as he’s on the field (and his injury history is pretty limited), Aaron Rodgers is one of the best quarterbacks in the game.
Last year: 5
14. OLB Lavonte David (Tampa Bay)
Lavonte David is another fantastic player who should excel in Lovie Smith’s scheme. David, a 2012 2nd round pick, graded out as Pro Football Focus’ 6th ranked 4-3 outside linebacker as a rookie in 2012 and their 2nd ranked 4-3 outside linebacker in 2013. He might be the best linebacker from the 2012 draft class and that includes Luke Kuechly. The 6-1 233 pounder excels in coverage and he’ll be like a rich man’s version of Lance Briggs for Lovie Smith.
Last year: 132
15. DE Michael Bennett (Seattle)
Michael Bennett was re-signed to a 4-year, 32 million dollar deal this off-season. That deal was an absolute steal for the Seahawks and he undoubtedly took some sort of hometown discount to remain with the defending champs. He’s graded out as among the top-7 in 4-3 defensive ends in each of the last 3 seasons, including #5 overall last season. No other player at his position has done that. He’s a very well-rounded and versatile player who is equally good as a pass rusher and a run stopper and he plays both defensive end and defensive tackle. He could play more snaps this season than the 617 snaps he played last season because of all the off-season losses the Seahawks had on the defensive line. After 632 snaps in 2011 and 985 snaps in 2012, he’s more than up to the task. He’s one of the best defensive players in the league.
Last year: 121
16. DT Kyle Williams (Buffalo)
Williams has been a dominant defensive lineman over the past 6 seasons, playing 4-3 defensive tackle, 3-4 nose tackle, and 3-4 defensive end. He missed most of the 2011 season with injury, but he was Pro Football Focus’ 4th ranked defensive tackle in 2008, 13th ranked defensive tackle in 2009, 1st ranked defensive tackle in 2010, 3rd ranked defensive tackle in 2012, and 3rd ranked 3-4 defensive end in 2013. The Bills’ switch to back a 4-3 this season shouldn’t affect him, though the fact that he’s going into his age 31 season is a very minor concern.
Last year: 16
17. TE Jimmy Graham (New Orleans)
In 4 seasons in the league since being drafted in the 3rd round in 2010, Jimmy Graham has caught 301 passes for 3863 yards and 41 touchdowns on 454 targets (66.3%) and 1758 routes run, an average of 2.20 yards per route run. He barely played as a rookie, but he’s graded out as Pro Football Focus’ 2nd, 7th, and 1st ranked pass catching tight end in 2011, 2012, and 2013 respectively. He’s “only” graded out 7th, 15th, and 4th in those 3 seasons respectively overall, but that’s because he’s graded out below average as a run blocker in 2 of those 3 seasons. He’s the Saints’ best pass catcher and a significant weapon for them in the passing game. He’s well worth the 4-year, 40 million dollar deal the Saints gave him this off-season, after franchise tagging him.
Last year: 23
18. RB LeSean McCoy (Philadelphia)
LeSean McCoy was Pro Football Focus’ #1 ranked running back last season, grading out by far #1 in run grade and #7 as a pass catcher, only struggling in pass protection. He rushed for 1607 yards and 9 touchdowns on 314 attempts, an average of 5.12 yards per attempt, and caught 52 passes on 539 yards and 2 touchdowns. He broke 75 tackles on 366 touches and averaged 2.38 yards per carry after contact, giving him the 9th best elusive rating in the NFL. There’s obviously no guarantee he continues that kind of success. It’s hard to repeat that at any position, especially at running back, especially when you’re a 5-10 198 pounder who had 366 touches (391 including post-season). This was the first time in his career he had graded out above 10th among running backs on Pro Football Focus (55th in 2009, 12th in 2010, 19th in 2011, 10th in 2012), so he’s a one year wonder in terms of this kind of dominance. Still, he’s arguably the best running back in the NFL.
Last year: 83
19. G Josh Sitton (Green Bay)
Josh Sitton graded out as Pro Football Focus’ 2nd ranked guard last season. He has done this kind of thing before. He’s been a top-8 guard in each of the past 5 seasons (8th, 2nd, 5th, 6th, 2nd), something no other guard has done. He’s one of the best guards in the NFL and one of the best players in the NFL overall.
Last year: 39
20. QB Drew Brees (New Orleans)
Since joining the Saints in 2006 and uniting with Sean Payton, he’s completed 67.3% of his passes for an average of 7.76 YPA, 283 touchdowns and 124 interceptions. He’s been a top-4 quarterback on Pro Football Focus in every season since 2009, the only quarterback who can say they’ve had that level of consistent dominance over that period of time. Even in 2007 and 2008, he was #3 and #7 respectively. He’s going into his age 35 season, but he’s shown no signs of decline. Last season, he completed 68.6% of his passes for an average of 7.94 YPA, 39 touchdowns, and 12 interceptions. Like Brady and Manning before him, Brees is another quarterback who could remain dominant into his mid-30s. The Saints will once again have an explosive offense this season because of him.
Last year: 33
21. DE Calais Campbell (Arizona)
Calais Campbell should remain one of the more dominant defensive linemen in the game. The 2008 2nd round pick has graded out above average on Pro Football Focus in each of the last 5 seasons as a starter, dating back to 2009. He’s graded out in the top-3 among 3-4 defensive ends in each of the last 3 seasons, the only player at his position who can say that. He’s one of the best players in the NFL.
Last year: 24
22. OT Trent Williams (Washington)
Trent Williams graded out as Pro Football Focus’ #1 ranked offensive tackle last season. Joe Thomas was the better pass protector last season, which is much more important for a left tackle, and he has the more proven history, but Williams might be the 2nd best offensive tackle in the game. He’s graded out above average on Pro Football Focus in each of the past 3 seasons, grading out 27th in 2011 and 16th in 2012. The 4th overall pick in 2010, he has finally reached his potential and could easily continue be dominant in the future, only going into his age 26 season. He might not be #1 again, but I expect more dominance from him.
Last year: 98
23. RB Jamaal Charles (Kansas City)
Jamaal Charles’ 5.58 career yards per carry are the highest all-time by a modern era running back (1960-today). Jim Brown comes in 2nd and even the legendary Brown averaged “just” 5.22 yards per carry. Last season, Charles averaged 4.97 yards per carry on 259 yards, rushing for 1287 yards and 12 touchdowns, in addition to what he did as a pass catcher. He was Pro Football Focus’ 2nd ranked running back overall (behind LeSean McCoy) and 4th ranked in pure running grade (behind McCoy, Marshawn Lynch, and Adrian Peterson). In 2012, he averaged 5.29 yards per carry on 285 carries, rushing for 1509 yards and 5 touchdowns. Charles will probably never be a 300+ carry back under Andy Reid, but the Chiefs pass to the running back enough to make up for it.
Last year: 27
24. S Jairus Byrd (New Orleans)
Jairus Byrd has been in the league 5 years, since being drafted in the 2nd round in 2009, and he’s been an above average starter on Pro Football Focus in each season. He’s been especially dominant over the past 3 seasons, grading out 3rd in 2011 among safeties and 2nd in 2012. In 2013, he was “just” 8th because he missed 5 games to start the season, but he was just as dominant upon return as he was before the injury and he doesn’t have an injury history, missing 2 games from 2009-2012 combined. Even still, he’s one of just two safeties to grade out in the top-8 in all 3 seasons from 2011-2013, along with Eric Weddle. He’s the best deep safety in the NFL and arguably the best overall safety. He’s what everyone thinks Earl Thomas is (not that Thomas is bad). He had off-season back surgery, but he should still be able to have another strong season.
Last year: 26
25. MLB Derrick Johnson (Kansas City)
Derrick Johnson doesn’t get the recognition of guys like Patrick Willis, NaVorro Bowman, and Luke Kuechly, but he’s in that same class of player. Mr. Reliable, Johnson has been a top-5 middle linebacker on Pro Football Focus in each of the last 4 seasons, something only Patrick Willis himself can also say. Last season, he was 3rd. Even in 2009, the last season he was outside of the top-5, he graded out 8th and did it on 344 snaps. Todd Haley did a lot of things wrong in Kansas City, but his biggest success was his ability to bring the most out of Johnson, a 2005 1st round pick, with discipline and toughness. Haley benched Johnson during 2009 for a variety of reasons and that served as a much needed wakeup call. He hasn’t looked back since. Even going into his age 32 season, he could easily have another strong season, as he’s yet to really show signs of aging, though his age is beginning to become a concern.
Last year: 30