26. OT Joe Staley (San Francisco)
Joe Staley was a dominant left tackle last season. He wasn’t the #1 ranked offensive tackle he was in 2012, but he still ranked 5th at his position. The 2007 1st round pick has graded out above average in 6 of 7 seasons since being drafted, especially dominating over the past 2 seasons. He’s the only offensive tackle in the league who has graded out in the top-5 at their position on Pro Football Focus in each of the past 2 seasons, dominating as both a pass protector and a run blocker. He’s one of the best offensive tackles in the game.
Last year: 20
27. DT Geno Atkins (Cincinnati)
Geno Atkins might not be 100% in his first season back from a torn ACL that ended his season in the Bengals’ 9th game of the season. When at his best, Atkins is one of the best defensive players in the game and probably the best defensive tackle in the game. As a 4th round rookie in 2010, Atkins graded out 11th on Pro Football Focus 356 snaps and he ranked 2nd in 2011 and 1st in 2012, after taking over an every down player. Atkins was by far the top defensive tackle in 2012 and only JJ Watt had a better grade at any position, helping cement Atkins as one of the top few players in the NFL regardless of position. He was 2nd on this list last season. The ACL is an obvious concern though, as is the loss of defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer.
Last year: 2
28. OLB Von Miller (Denver)
At his best, Miller is one of the best defensive players in the entire NFL. The 2nd overall pick in the 2011 NFL Draft, Miller won Defensive Rookie of the Year in 2011 and graded out as Pro Football Focus’ #1 ranked 4-3 outside linebacker by a wide margin. That margin was even wider in 2012, when he was Pro Football Focus’ #3 ranked defensive player regardless of position. He only played 9 games and 552 snaps in 2013, but he was still Pro Football Focus’ #1 ranked 4-3 outside linebacker by a wide margin and their #4 ranked defensive player regardless of position. He had 6 sacks, 8 hits, and 27 hurries on 256 pass rush snaps (16.0% rate) and also excelled as a run defender and held up in coverage on the 75 snaps when he was asked to drop. The issue is he missed 6 games last season to start the season with off-the-field issues and then tore his ACL week 16. He might not be 100% to start this season. He was 3rd on this list last season, but he’s not nearly as clean as he was last off-season.
Last year: 3
29. C Alex Mack (Cleveland)
Mack was re-signed this off-season to a 5-year, 42 million dollar deal, which made him the league’s highest paid center in average salary before Maurkice Pouncey of the Steelers got a bigger extension this off-season. It’s a lot of money for a center, but it’s hard to argue that Mack wasn’t worth it, as he’s arguably the top center in the NFL. He’s graded out as a top-10 center in each of his 5 seasons in the NFL since being drafted in the first round by the Browns in 2009, maxing out at 4th overall last season. Only Chris Myers has also been in the top-10 in centers in all 5 of those seasons. Mack is also at the peak of his career, going into his age 29 season, coming off of a career year.
Last year: NA
30. TE Rob Gronkowski (New England)
Gronkowski has been a top-5 tight end in all 4 seasons he’s been in the league, including last year when he played just 390 snaps in 7 games. Gronkowski has caught 184 passes for 2709 yards and 32 touchdowns over his last 34 games, which is 87 catches for 1275 yards and 15 touchdowns over 16 games. He’s averaged 2.38 yards per route run over his career, including 2.47 yards per route run over the past 3 seasons and 2.75 yards per route run last season. That’s insane for a tight end. For comparison, Jimmy Graham has averaged 2.19 yards per route run over the past 3 seasons and he’s widely considered the best receiving tight end in the NFL. Gronkowski, when healthy, is a better pass catcher and he’s also easily a better run blocker. He struggled a little bit as a run blocker last season, after coming back from a broken arm, but he was a top-5 run blocker in every season from 2010-2012. When healthy, he’s easily the best, most complete tight end in the NFL. Over the past 3 seasons, Tom Brady completes 65.3% of his passes for an average of 8.07 YPA, 81 touchdowns, and 24 interceptions when Gronkowski plays (36 games, including playoffs) and the Patriots score 32.8 points per game. When Gronkowski isn’t on the field, Brady completes 58.3% of his passes for an average of 6.88 YPA, 30 touchdowns, and 13 interceptions and the Patriots score 28.0 points per game (19 games, including playoffs). The only issue is that Gronk is coming off of a torn ACL and has missed a combined 14 games over the past 2 seasons with a variety of injuries, including arm, leg, and back problems, but he’s tentatively expected to play week 1.
Last year: 31
31. S Eric Weddle (San Diego)
Weddle graded out as Pro Football Focus’ 7th ranked safety last season, which was his worst season since 2009, when he graded out 8th. He was 1st in 2012 and 3rd in both 2011 and 2010. He’s easily the only safety in the NFL to grade out top-8 in each of the last 5 seasons and only one other safety (Jairus Byrd) has even done that in each of the last 3 seasons. Weddle is also the only safety to grade out in the top-7 in each of the last 3 seasons. Even in 2009, his “down” year, it was mostly because he missed 3 games with injury. He hasn’t missed a game since. He doesn’t get the recognition, but he’s one of the top safeties in the NFL. Unlike guys like Earl Thomas (12.8% snaps within 8 yards of the line of scrimmage last season), Devin McCourty (9.1%), and Jairus Byrd (12.1%), who are primarily deep safeties, and guys like Kam Chancellor (69.2%), TJ Ward (65.7%), and Eric Berry (69.7%), who are primarily box safeties, Weddle is dominant in all facets of the game and can line up anywhere in the defensive backfield (46.3% of snaps within 8 yards of the line of scrimmage last season). That’s incredibly impressive.
Last year: 17
32. OT Andrew Whitworth (Cincinnati)
Andrew Whitworth is coming off arguably the best season of his career. Playing 587 snaps at left tackle and 350 snaps at guard, he was Pro Football Focus’ 15th ranked offensive tackle and 7th ranked guard, with no one at either position playing fewer snaps than him and graded out better. His composite grade would have been 2nd at both tackle and guard last season. While this was the first extended time he had played at guard since 2008, this kind of dominance is nothing new for him. Since taking over at left tackle in 2009, Whitworth didn’t miss a start from 2009-2012 and graded out as a top-12 offensive tackle in every season from 2009-2012, maxing out as Pro Football Focus’ #1 ranked offensive tackle in 2010. He was outside of the top-12 last season, but only because he spent time at guard. He was still just as dominant, if not more so, last season, as compared to that 2009-2012 stretch. Even still, Joe Thomas is the only other offensive tackle to grade out in the top-15 in each of the last 5 seasons. Whitworth is going into his age 33 season, which is a concern, but, considering how well he played last season, I’m not too concerned yet. He’ll move back to the blindside full-time this season.
Last year: 75
33. C John Sullivan (Minnesota)
John Sullivan might be the best center in the NFL. He had a rough start to his career as a starter, after getting drafted in the 6th round in 2008, but he’s been a top-3 center on Pro Football Focus in each of the last 3 seasons, the only center in the game who can say so. He’s developed into a fantastic interior offensive lineman and should continue to play very well this season.
Last year: 15
34. DT Ndamukong Suh (Detroit)
Ndamukong Suh, who graded out as Pro Football Focus’ 2nd ranked defensive tackle last season. He’s had a strong career since being drafted 2ndoverall in 2010, but last season was arguably the best season of his career. He’s never matched the 10 sacks he had as a rookie, but he’s become a much better run stopper and gotten much more consistent pass rush since then. He actually graded out below average on Pro Football Focus in the first 2 seasons of his career in 2010 and 2011 because of his poor run play. In fact, last season was the first time in his career that he had graded out above average as a run stopper. However, he’s been Pro Football Focus’ 4th and 2nd ranked defensive tackle in 2012 and 2013 respectively. He and Gerald McCoy are the only two defensive tackles to grade out in the top-4 in each of the last 2 seasons. Aside from McCoy and maybe the versatile Kyle Williams (who can play 3-4 defensive end, 4-3 defensive tackle, and 3-4 nose tackle), Suh is probably the best defensive tackle in the NFL.
Last year: 61
35. S Devin McCourty (New England)
Darrelle Revis isn’t the only top level defensive back the Patriots have on the roster as McCourty has quietly developed into one of the best safeties in the game over the past 2 seasons. McCourty was a rookie All-Pro in 2010 and a deserving one, as the 1st round pick graded out as Pro Football Focus’ 7th ranked cornerback that season. McCourty struggled in 2011, grading out below average, and then was moved to safety about halfway through the 2012 season. In 2012, he was as good as he was in 2010, if not better, grading out 8th among cornerbacks on 534 snaps (no cornerback played fewer snaps and graded out higher) and 14th among safeties on 564 snaps (only Troy Polamalu played fewer snaps and graded out higher). His composite grade would have been 5th among cornerbacks and 4th among safeties. 2013 was his best season yet as he graded out as Pro Football Focus’ #1 ranked safety. Primarily a deep safety (9.1% of snaps within 8 yards of the line of scrimmage, fewest in the NFL last season among safeties), he’s New England’s version of Earl Thomas or Jairus Byrd.
Last year: 81
36. TE Jason Witten (Dallas)
Since being drafted in the 3rd round in 2003, he’s missed one game, missing one as a rookie when he broke his jaw. He played in the opener in 2012 less than 3 weeks after rupturing his spleen and needing to sign a waiver to get onto the field. Excluding his rookie year, he’s always been between 64 and 110 catches 754 and 1152 yards and 1 and 7 touchdowns. He’s also a fantastic run blocker, as the 6-6 261 pounder has graded out above average as a run blocker on Pro Football Focus in every season since they started keeping track in 2007. He’s also been a top-9 tight end in each of the last 7 seasons (something no other tight end can say) and a top-4 tight end in 6 of the last 7 seasons on Pro Football Focus, maxing out at #1 in 2009 and 2010 and grading out 3rd last season. He’s going into his age 32 season, which is a concern, but he should still be a dominant tight end.
Last year: 37
37. MLB NaVorro Bowman (San Francisco)
NaVorro Bowman is expected to open the season on the PUP list and miss at least the first 6 games of the season after a brutal knee injury sustained in the NFC Championship. Even when he returns, there’s a good chance he’s not nearly as good as the 49ers have come to expect him to be, especially not right away. It’s a shame because he’s an insanely talented young player (only going into his age 26 season) coming off of arguably the best season of his career in 2013, grading out as Pro Football Focus’ #1 ranked middle linebacker. The 2010 3rd round pick was also #1 at his position in 2011 in his first year as a starter and graded out 6th in 2012, in a “down” season. Only teammate Patrick Willis and the Chiefs’ Derrick Johnson have also graded out in the top-6 among middle linebackers in each of the last 3 seasons. When healthy, he’s the best middle linebacker other than Willis and, if not for the injury, I’d call him one of the top-10 defensive players in the league. I can’t do that anymore unfortunately. I hope he can bounce back long-term.
Last year: 51
38. WR Julio Jones (Atlanta)
In 2011 and 2012 combined, Julio Jones, the 6th overall pick in 2011, caught 133 passes on 218 targets (61.0%) for 2157 yards and 18 touchdowns on 1035 routes run, an average of 2.08 yards per route run. He was Pro Football Focus’ 15th ranked wide receiver in 2012. He looked on his way to a breakout year in his 3rd year in the league in 2013, catching 41 passes on 57 targets (71.9%) for 580 yards and 2 touchdowns on 212 routes run, an average of 2.74 yards per route run, best in the NFL among eligible receivers. However, he broke his foot 5 games into the season and missed the rest of the year, killing his chance at that breakout year. Still, he was Pro Football Focus’ 28th ranked wide receiver on just 298 snaps played, with no one playing fewer snaps than him and grading out higher in pass catching grade. He has a troubling injury history, particularly with his foot, dating back to his collegiate days. If he can stay healthy, he could absolutely dominate. Just for fun, his stats in 2013 extrapolate to 131 catches for 1856 yards and 6 touchdowns over 16 games. He won’t reach that level of production, but still.
Last year: 77
39. DE Cameron Jordan (New Orleans)
The player who benefitted the most from the Saints moving to a 3-4 was Cameron Jordan, who finished last season as Pro Football Focus’ 4th ranked 3-4 defensive end. The 2011 1st round pick was largely a league average player in his first 2 years in the league, struggling as a pass rusher and excelling against the run. Last season, Jordan moved back to his collegiate position of 3-4 defensive end, from 4-3 defensive end, and the 6-4 287 pounder was a much better fit. He did grade out below average against the run, but his play as a pass rusher (2nd at his position) was enough to make up for it. That’s the most important part of a defensive lineman’s job and he’s fantastic at it. He’s just a one year wonder, but, only going into his age 25 season, Jordan could have another dominant year in 2014, again in a 3-4. The Saints picked up his 5th year option for 2015.
Last year: NA
40. WR Demaryius Thomas (Denver)
Thomas has broken out as one of the best wide receivers in the NFL statistically over the past 2 seasons, combining to catch 186 passes for 2864 yards and 26 touchdowns in those 2 years. Obviously, Peyton Manning’s arrival had something to do with that, but the 2010 1st round pick had 35 catches for 745 yards and 4 touchdowns in his final 7 games, including playoffs, with Tim Tebow in 2011. That’s 80 catches for 1703 yards and 9 touchdowns extrapolated over 16 games. He’s graded out 5th and 2nd in 2012 and 2013 respectively on Pro Football Focus’ wide receiver rankings. Manning’s arrival obviously helped, but it’s very possible that he’s just a supremely talented wide receiver who finally adjusted to the NFL in the middle of the 2011 season, once he had some time in the league and put his injuries behind him (11 games missed in 2010-2011). With Manning throwing to him, he’s even more dangerous and Manning has a 124.4 QB rating when throwing to him over the past 2 seasons. Going into only his age 26 season and a contract year, there’s no reason to believe he’ll stop producing.
Last year: 62
41. RB Adrian Peterson (Minnesota)
Peterson didn’t repeat the 2000 rushing yard season he had in 2012, but he still impressed, rushing for 1266 yards and 10 touchdowns on 279 carries, an average of 4.54 YPC. In his career, he’s rushed for 10,115 yards (already 27th all-time) and 86 touchdowns on 2033 carries, an average of 4.98 YPC. He wasn’t Pro Football Focus’ #1 ranked running back in terms of run grade last season, like he was in 2012, but he still ranked 4th in that aspect. In the past 4 seasons, he’s ranked 2nd, 1st, 1st, and 4th respectively in that aspect. Peterson is going into his age 29 season with 2033 career carries. He’s one of the all-time greats and will be enshrined in Canton someday, but the average top-20 all-time rusher (in terms of yards) has their last 1000 yard season at 30-31 on average, plays another 2 seasons after that on average, and averages 567 yards and 4 touchdowns on 151 carries (3.75 YPC). Peterson should have another couple of seasons as a dominant back left in him, but it’s something to begin taking notice of.
Last year: 4
42. OLB Aldon Smith (San Francisco)
Aldon Smith will miss the first 9 games of the season with suspension. Not only will that cost him serious game action, but it could really put him behind the 8-ball and lead to him being less than 100% upon his return. Smith has a troubling off-the-field record over the past calendar year with a DUI, a stint in rehab, and a false bomb threat in LAX airport. Smith missed 5 games last season while he got treatment, which makes it even more concerning that he had another arrest this off-season, even if the charges were eventually dropped and he claims no alcohol or other substance use was involved. The 49ers picked up his 5th year option for 2015 anyway because he’s so talented when on the field though. He was Pro Football Focus’ 2nd ranked 3-4 outside linebacker in 2011, 3rd in 2012, and, even with all of his issues, he still finished 5th at his position in 2013 on just 582 snaps.
Last year: 40
43. CB Patrick Peterson (Arizona)
Patrick Peterson got an absurd 5-year, 70 million dollar extension this off-season two years before the end of his rookie deal (the Cardinals picked up his 5th year option for 2015 earlier on the off-season). He’s not worth that money yet, but he’s only going into his age 24 season and he’s been very impressive over the past 2 seasons, after struggling as a rookie. He graded out as Pro Football Focus’ 16th ranked cornerback in 2012 and 14th ranked cornerback in 2013. That is actually even more impressive than it sounds considering how inconsistent cornerback play has been over the past few seasons. Only Richard Sherman, Jason McCourty, and Chris Harris have also graded out in the top-16 in each of the last 2 seasons. He’s a very good cornerback right now who could easily become the great cornerback he’s being paid like over the next few seasons.
Last year: 104
44. OLB Clay Matthews (Green Bay)
When Matthews is healthy, he’s one of the better edge rushers in the NFL. The 2009 1st round pick graded out as a top-6 3-4 outside linebacker in every season from 2009-2012, including #1 in 2012. No other 3-4 outside linebacker did the same thing. He struggled last season by his standards, even when on the field, on 571 snaps, playing through injury and grading out just about average. However, if he’s healthy, he could easily have another dominant year this year, only going into his age 28 season.
Last year: 21
45. CB Joe Haden (Cleveland)
Joe Haden is one of the best cornerbacks in the NFL and he was a deserving All-Pro last season. The Browns did overpay him on a 5-year, 68 million dollar extension this off-season though. Joe Haden is a terrific cornerback, but I don’t think he’s quite at the level of deserving what Richard Sherman got (4-year, 56 million) and he’s also not as good as Revis. Revis has graded out among Pro Football Focus’ top-3 cornerbacks in 4 of his last 5 healthy seasons. Meanwhile, Richard Sherman has graded out 2nd and 5th in 2012 and 2013 respectively. Joe Haden has never graded out higher than 6th in 4 seasons, doing so in his rookie year in 2010, and he came in 13th, 20th, and 17th in the last 3 seasons respectively. That’s still very impressive, especially considering the volatility of the cornerback position. He’s been one of Pro Football Focus’ top-20 cornerbacks in each of the last 4 seasons, something only Jason McCourty can also say (Revis missed 2012 with injury and Sherman was still in college in 2010). Haden might be the #3 cornerback in the NFL and he’s definitely top-5, but he was overpaid a little bit.
Last year: 63
46. DE Greg Hardy (Carolina)
Hardy graded out as Pro Football Focus’ 2nd ranked 4-3 defensive end, after ranking 6th in that aspect in 2012. Hardy was franchise tagged as a result this off-season. There is concern with Hardy because he was arrested this off-season and eventually found guilty of assaulting and threatening to kill his girlfriend. Hardy is appealing the ruling and the NFL probably will wait until the appeal fails before suspending him, which means he should be fine for this season. That being said, he fell to the 6th round of the draft in 2010 because of character concerns, primarily motivation issues, but the fact that this happened in the off-season right after he got franchise tagged is a serious concern. With 13.116 million guaranteed this season, there is concern that he might coast on-the-field as well, though there are obvious financial incentives for him giving 100% and putting up another dominant season, as he is set to hit free agency again next off-season.
Last year: 59
47. WR Antonio Brown (Pittsburgh)
Because of the Steelers’ off-season losses at wide receiver, Antonio Brown could have even more targets this year than he did last year, when he was targeted 159 times, 4th most among wide receivers in the NFL. He caught 110 of those targets (69.2%) for 1498 yards and 8 touchdowns and averaged 2.37 yards per route run, 7th in the NFL among eligible wide receivers. He finished the season as Pro Football Focus’ 3rd ranked wide receiver, including #1 in pure pass catching grade. Now fully out of the shadow of guys like Hines Ward, Santonio Holmes, and Mike Wallace, Brown, 2010 6th round pick, is quietly one of the best wide receivers in the game. He’s caught 245 passes for 3394 yards and 15 touchdowns over the past 3 seasons combined and now he’s coming off of the best season of his career. He’s an excellent route runner and a perfect fit for Todd Haley’s system. He’s also a threat in the return game, if they choose to continue using him in that role.
Last year: 178
48. G Louis Vasquez (Denver)
Louis Vasquez had a solid 4-year stint in San Diego before taking his game to the next level after signing with the Broncos as a free agent last off-season. He graded out 27th, 26th, 30th, and 13th respectively from 2009-2012 before grading out 3rd last season. There’s no guarantee he’ll be quite that good again and he has some injury history, missing 11 games in 5 seasons and only once playing all 16 games, but it’s worth noting he had his best season in San Diego in his final year with the team and he’s only missed 1 game in the last 2 seasons. Going into his age 27 season, Vasquez appears to be in the prime of his career and one of the best guards in the game.
Last year: 162
49. OT Jason Peters (Philadelphia)
Jason Peters missed all of 2012 with a torn Achilles, after grading out as Pro Football Focus’ #1 offensive tackle by far in 2011. Upon his return in 2013, he barely seemed slowed at all, grading out 4th at his position. He’s graded out above average in every healthy season since 2007, grading out 14th in 2007, 19th in 2009, and 13th in 2010. He’s going into his age 32 season, but he should still be able to have another strong season on the blindside for the Eagles.
Last year: 78
50. DE Jurrell Casey (Tennessee)
Jurrell Casey was probably the Titans’ best defensive player last season, grading out as Pro Football Focus’ 5th ranked defensive tackle. He was 8th in 2012 and 16th as a 3rd round rookie in 2011. Going into his 4th season in the league, only his age 25 season, Casey is a supremely talented young defensively lineman, but he’s a questionable fit for the Titans’ new 3-4 at 6-1 290. He’ll play 3-4 defensive end, where he’s not as natural or experienced as he is at defensive tackle and he could struggle by his standards as a result. Casey also lost 15 pounds, going from 305 to 290, for this new role, which could be risky.
Last year: 170