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.
- WR Jeremy Maclin (Kansas City)
Last year: NA
Maclin had a great 2014 season, as he had career highs across the board in Chip Kelly’s offense, despite quarterback problems, catching 85 passes for 1318 yards and 10 touchdowns, while grading out as Pro Football Focus’ 14th ranked wide receiver. However, he’s a one-year wonder. From 2009-2013, he missed 21 games with injury, including all of 2013 with a torn ACL. 2014 was also the first season in his career in which he graded out above average on Pro Football Focus. He was terrible in 2012, grading out 101st out of 105 eligible.
He got a 5-year, 55 million dollar deal from the Chiefs as a free agent this off-season, but the fact that the Eagles, who had issues at wide receiver at well, were only willing to offer 9 million annually to Maclin is concerning. Also concerning is the fact that Maclin never did well before being in Chip Kelly’s scheme last season and now he returns to Andy Reid’s scheme, which he didn’t do that well in from 2009-2012 to start his career. Couple that with his injury history and his overall past struggles and that wasn’t a very good deal, but he will help their team. His numbers should see a huge hit in the Chiefs’ ball control offense, but he’ll give the Chiefs’ offense more versatility in play calling and style of play. The Chiefs should have more pass plays of 20+ yards next season as a result, after just 43 last season, among the fewest in the NFL.
- CB Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie (NY Giants)
Last year: 148
Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie was Pro Football Focus’ 17th ranked cornerback last season, in the first year of a 5-year, 35 million dollar deal. That’s not as good as he was in 2013 with Denver, when he graded out 6th, but the Giants will definitely take that from him every year. He could be better this season in his age 29 season because he dealt with a variety of nagging injuries all last season. He didn’t miss any games, but, often playing on a snap count, he was limited to 767 snaps on the season and even came off the bench once.
The Giants have to be pretty happy that DRC seems to have put his early career inconsistencies behind him. From his rookie year in 2008, when he was a 1st round pick by the Cardinals, through 2012, he graded out 63rd, 4th, 100th, 84th, and 91st respectively, before playing very well over the past 2 seasons. The 6-2 193 pounder has always had talent, but there have been some questions about his effort in terms of staying in shape, playing physical, and providing run support, all of which he’s been better about recently. Those were the reasons he had to “settle” for a 5-year, 35 million dollar deal last off-season while cornerbacks like Vontae Davis, Brent Grimes, and Aqib Talib all received more lucrative contracts. The Giants took a risk signing him, but they have to be happy about how this deal has played out so far, considering he’s just the 19th highest paid cornerback in the NFL in average salary.
- TE Zach Ertz (Philadelphia)
Last year: NA
Zach Ertz has graded out above average in both seasons he’s been in the league since being drafted in the 2nd round in 2013, grading out 9th among tight ends in 2013 on 459 snaps and 5th in 2014 on 603 snaps. The only obstacle Ertz has to more playing time is Brent Celek, a solid starting tight end who has played ahead of him over the past 2 seasons. Celek has graded out above average in each of the last 6 seasons, but the 6-4 261 pounder is a better run blocker than pass catcher and has graded out below average as a pass catcher in 2 of the last 3 seasons, including last season.
Celek already had fewer routes run last season (297 to 397 for Ertz), even though he played more snaps, and he should play even more of a complementary role this season in his age 30 season, setting Ertz up for a breakout 3rd year in the league. Having averaged 1.83 yards per route run thus far in his career, he could have a 900+ yard year on 500 or so routes run this season, especially with Jeremy Maclin gone and new quarterback Sam Bradford’s tendency to target intermediate options. He has the potential to be one of the best tight ends in the NFL.
- S Mike Adams (Indianapolis)
Last year: NA
Mike Adams had a surprisingly dominant season in for the Colts last season. Adams graded out 7th among safeties in 2014 and made his first Pro Bowl, even though it looked like his career was over until the Colts signed him in June of last year. He wasn’t left unsigned because he played badly prior to last season, as he was a solid starter in 2011, 2012, and 2013, grading out above average in 2011 and 2012 and only slightly below average in 2013. He was left unsigned because of age, as he was going into his age 33 season. He was able to dominate in spite of that last season, but I think it’s highly unlikely that he’ll be able to repeat the best season of his career in his age 34 season in 2015. Still, there’s a good chance that he is an above average starter again and once again proves to be a good value. The Colts re-signed him to a very reasonable 2-year, 4.25 million dollar deal this off-season.
- DE Charles Johnson (Carolina)
Last year: 183
Charles Johnson, a 2007 3rd round pick, has made 81 starts in 109 games in 8 years in the league and has graded out above average in the last 7, including 11thlast season. He was re-signed to a monster 6-year, 76 million dollar deal 4 off-seasons ago and, while he hasn’t lived up to his outstanding 2011 season, when he graded out #3 among 4-3 defensive ends, he’s still been a huge asset for them. Only going into his age 29 season, I expect that to continue, but he’ll need to be a little bit more than just an asset to justify a 11 million dollar non-guaranteed salary for 2016, his age 30 season. This could be his 9th and final season in Carolina, though not for lack of talent.
- WR Eric Decker (NY Jets)
Last year: 193
Decker was the Jets’ big off-season acquisition last off-season, coming over as a free agent from Denver and adding much needed life to a receiving corps that was led in snaps played by Stephen Hill in 2013. Decker didn’t continue his big numbers from 2012 and 2013, when he put up slash lines of 85/1064/13 and 87/1288/11 respectively, but that was to be expected, given the switch of Peyton Manning to Geno Smith at quarterback. Decker’s 74/962/5 slash line in 2014 was still very respectable given the circumstances he dealt with, frequent double teams and a mess at quarterback. He graded out 24th among wide receivers, which lines up with how he played in 2012 (42th) or 2013 (12th), and overall I’d say he lived up to his 5-year, 36.25 million dollar deal on a team that desperately needed a guy like him. He’s “only” the 17th highest paid wide receiver in the league, which is about right for him.
- G Kyle Long (Chicago)
Last year: NA
Long was a first round pick by the Bears in 2013. Though he missed a game with injury last year, something he didn’t do as a rookie, it was just one game and he overall played much better overall in his 2nd season in the league than he did as a rookie. Long went from 43rd among guards in 2013 to 12th in 2014. He was an older rookie and will be in his age 27 season in 2015, but expectations should still be fairly high for him. The Bears have talked about moving him to right tackle, where they have a huge hole, but he’s been so good at right guard that I’d leave him there.
- MLB Karlos Dansby (Cleveland)
Last year: 91
Dansby graded out as Pro Football Focus’ 9th ranked middle linebacker last season, after being signed to a 4-year, 24 million dollar deal as a free agent last off-season. He’s graded out above average in 6 straight seasons, in the top-12 among middle linebackers in 5 straight seasons, and above average in 7 of 8 seasons in Pro Football Focus’ history. The issue is he’s going into his age 34 season and he won’t be able to play like this forever. His abilities could fall off the cliff at any point, including this season. For that reason, I put him here, though he played much better than this last season.
- S Donte Whitner (Cleveland)
Last year: 190
Whitner, a 2006 1st round pick, was just an average player in 5 years in Buffalo to start his career, but was a much more dominant player on his 2nd contract in San Francisco from 2011-2013 and then continued that into his 3rd contract in 2014 with the Browns, after signing on a 4-year, 28 million dollar deal last off-season. He graded out as Pro Football Focus’ 7th ranked safety in 2011, 7th ranked in 2013, and then 11th in 2014 (with a below average season in 2012 in between). He’s going into his age 30 season, but he should have another strong year.
- S TJ Ward (Denver)
Last year: 56
Ward actually had a down season in 2014, in the first year of a 4-year, 22.5 million dollar deal, grading out just 34th at his position and especially struggling in coverage, grading out 81st out of 87 eligible in that aspect. However, he’s been much better in the past, grading out 32nd, 14th, 6th, and 4th in 2010, 2011, 2012, and 2013 respectively. He’s a much better player against the run than against the pass, but he graded out positively in coverage in 2011, 2012, and 2013. He should be able to have a bounce back year in 2015.
- DE Robert Ayers (NY Giants)
Last year: NA
When Robert Ayers went down for the season with a torn pectoral last season, it was a significant loss. Ayers only missed 4 games, but he was great when on the field and the Giants were finally just getting around to giving him the playing time he deserved when he went down, as his final game of the season was also his first start of the season. He finished the season as Pro Football Focus’ 5th ranked 4-3 defensive end, despite playing just 386 snaps. No one played fewer snaps and graded out better at the position. 2014 was definitely the best season of the 2009 1st round pick’s career, but him having success is definitely not unprecedented. Ayers has graded out above average in 4 of 6 seasons in his career, including 3 straight and a 2013 season in which he finished 14th among 4-3 defensive ends. With Mathias Kiwanuka (57th among 59 eligible 4-3 defensive ends last season on 558 snaps) gone and Jason Pierre-Paul’s health a question mark, Ayers will be a starter and will be asked to lead the Giants’ pass rush. He could have a very strong season on 600-700 snaps.
- OLB Paul Kruger (Cleveland)
Last year: NA
Paul Kruger led the Browns’ solid defense (11th in rate of moving the chains allowed) with 12 sacks last season and will be counted on again this season. He has graded out above average in 4 straight seasons, including the last 3 as a starter, ranking 6th among 3-4 outside linebackers in 2012, 20th in 2013, and 14th in 2014. The Browns signed him to a 5-year, 40 million dollar deal two off-seasons ago, a risky deal because he had only been a starter for one year, but the Browns’ risk has paid off. The 2009 2nd round pick has developed into a strong player.
- TE Antonio Gates (San Diego)
Last year: NA
Antonio Gates and Philip Rivers have connected for 74 touchdowns in 9 seasons together, 5th most by a quarterback/receiver duo in NFL history, and within striking distance of Peyton Manning and Reggie Wayne in 4th with 76, but Gates is heading into his age 35 season, so it’s fair to wonder how long he can continue playing at a high level. Gates looked done in 2012, catching just 49 passes for 538 yards and 7 touchdowns, but has bounced back over the past 2 seasons, catching 69 passes for 821 yards and 12 touchdowns in 2013 and 77 passes for 872 yards and 4 touchdowns in 2014. He’s graded out 14th and 7th respectively over the past 2 seasons in pure pass catching grade among tight ends on Pro Football Focus. His run blocking abilities have deteriorated as he’s grown older, but he’s graded out above average as a pass catcher in all 8 seasons of Pro Football Focus’ history. In addition to his age, he’s also suspended for the first 4 games of the season for performance enhancing drugs, but he could easily remain an asset in the passing game upon his return.
- G Clint Boling (Cincinnati)
Last year: NA
Clint Boling was re-signed to a 5-year, 26 million dollar deal, a great value considering Orlando Franklin and Mike Iupati, comparably talented guards, got 36.5 and 40 million respectively over 5 years. Boling, a 2011 4th round pick, barely played as a rookie (175 snaps), but he’s been a starter over the past 3 seasons, making 44 of 48 starts (2 of which were at right tackle) and grading out above average in all 3 seasons. He was Pro Football Focus’ 22nd ranked guard in 2012, 18th ranked in 2013, and 19th ranked in 2014.
- RB LeSean McCoy (Buffalo)
Last year: 18
The Bills traded Kiko Alonso to the Eagles for LeSean McCoy this off-season. A lot of people loved the trade for Buffalo, remembering McCoy’s fantastic 2013 season, in which he rushed for 1607 yards and 9 touchdowns on 314 carries (5.12 YPC), while adding 52 catches for 539 yards and 2 touchdowns through the air and grading out #1 overall among running backs on Pro Football Focus. A lot of people seem to have forgotten that McCoy averaged just 4.23 YPC in 2014, rushing for 1319 yards and 5 touchdowns on 312 carries, while adding 28 catches for 155 yards and no touchdowns. While he was #1 in 2013, McCoy ranked 55th out of 57 eligible running backs in 2014.
McCoy has bounce back potential for sure going into 2015 and will probably be closer to 2014 than 2013. However, 2013 is still the only season in his career in which he graded out higher than 10th among running backs on Pro Football Focus, in 6 years in the league since going in the 2nd round in 2009. He’s not an elite running back; he’s a good running back who had one elite season. He’ll still help this running game, but the Bills reworked his contract after the trade and will owe him 40 million over the next 5 seasons with 26.5 million of that fully guaranteed.
If he continues to decline, at a position with a short shelf life and with 1761 career touches going into his age 27 season, the Bills will really regret that contract. Even if he puts up two more solid years, the Bills will probably really regret that contract. If McCoy was a free agent this off-season, he probably would not have even gotten that kind of deal, but the Bills gave him that deal and traded away a cheap young linebacker (Alonso was 9th among middle linebackers as a rookie in 2013, before missing 2014 with a torn ACL) for the right to give him that deal.
- WR Anquan Boldin (San Francisco)
Last year: 194
After coming over in a trade from Baltimore, Anquan Boldin has been very productive in two seasons in San Francisco, topping 1000+ yards in both seasons and totaling a combined 168 catches for 2241 yards and 12 touchdowns, all at the price of a 6th round pick and 12 million dollars over 2 years (he’ll take home another 6 million this season, in the final year of his current contract). Boldin has had a fantastic career and could be eventually bound for the Hall of Fame, with 12,406 receiving yards currently, 19th all-time. However, even the average top-20 receiver (in terms of yardage all-time) has his last 1000 yard season at age 34-35, averages 48 catches for 594 yards and 3 touchdowns for 2 more seasons after age 34-35, and is done playing by age 36-37. Boldin may have had his last 1000+ yard season ever in 2014 and could easily see his abilities fall off a cliff in his contract year in 2015.
- RB Arian Foster (Houston)
Last year: NA
Foster, a 2009 undrafted free agent has had an impressive career, rushing for 6309 yards and 53 touchdowns on 1391 carries (4.54 YPC), while adding another 2041 yards and 12 touchdowns on 227 catches through the air, but he’s only twice played more than 13 games and he’s missed 11 games with injuries over the past 2 seasons. This season, he’s already hurt, expected to miss at least the first month of the season, after undergoing groin surgery, which drops him on this list. He’s consistently good, grading out above average in 5 of 6 seasons (including 12th in 2014), but he’s going into his age 29 season and expectedly isn’t getting less injury prone, which is not what you want to see from your running back.
- CB Brandon Boykin (Pittsburgh)
Last year: 192
A 2012 4th round pick, Brandon Boykin has been arguably the best pure slot cornerback in the NFL over the past 3 seasons, grading out graded out 48th, 12th, and 21st respectively from 2012-2014 on 526, 635, and 524 snaps respectively. He’s been so good on the slot over the past 3 years that he wanted to be an every down starting cornerback and see more time outside. The Eagles refused and ended up sending arguably their best cover cornerback to the Steelers for a mere 5th round pick ahead of his contract year. With the cornerback needy Steelers, Boykin won’t just be an every down starter, but will also be the #1 cornerback. It’s a role in which he’s unproven, but he was an absolute steal for the price of a 5th round pick.
- CB Aqib Talib (Denver)
Last year: NA
Talib signed a 6-year, 57 million dollar deal with the Broncos last off-season, leaving the New England Patriots. At the time, I said it was an overpay by the Broncos. Going into last off-season, he had never played all 16 games in a season and missed 23 games in 6 seasons combined in the league, thanks to a variety of injuries and off-the-field problems. He had also never graded out higher than 16th among cornerbacks going into last season. However, last season, he graded out 15th among cornerbacks in 15 starts, arguably the best season of his career.
- DE Chandler Jones (New England)
Last year: NA
The Patriots added edge player Jabaal Sheard as a free agent this off-season and now have a trio of solid edge players in Sheard, Rob Ninkovich, and Chandler Jones. Jones is the biggest of the trio at 6-5 265, so he’ll be tasked with rushing the passer from the interior sub packages, which he has some experience with. Jones is also probably the best of the trio. The 2012 1st round pick has graded out above average in 2 of 3 seasons in the NFL, including 11th among eligible 3-4 outside linebackers in 2014, despite missing 6 games with a hip injury. He does have some injury problems dating back to his collegiate days, but he’s healthy now and could have the best season of his career in his age 25 season in 2015, now playing a much more manageable amount of snaps. He has experience in a 4-3, as well as a 3-4, playing in a 4-3 in his first 2 seasons in New England in 2012 and 2013 and playing in one in college at Syracuse.
- WR Brandon Marshall (NY Jets)
Last year: 57
Knowing they wouldn’t be able to do anything real at the quarterback position this off-season, the Jets spent a lot of money to upgrade their team around the quarterback spot this off-season, going into the off-season with close to the most cap space in the league. Their biggest move on the offensive side of the ball wasn’t a free agent acquisition. It was the trade of a 5th round pick to the Chicago Bears for Brandon Marshall, who will make 9 million dollars this season, after the Jets gave him a restructured 3-year, 26 million dollar deal upon his arrival.
The Bears were willing to part with him because he’s coming off of a down year, catching just 61 passes for 721 yards and 8 touchdowns last season, and grading out just 26th among wide receivers, including just 46th in pure pass catching grade. However, while he’s going into his age 31 season, he does have bounce back potential. He’s graded out above average in 7 of 8 seasons in Pro Football Focus’ history, including 8thin 2012, and 1st in 2013. He might be aging and a little overpaid, but he represents a significant upgrade for the Jets at wide receiver.
- CB Jason Verrett (San Diego)
Last year: NA
The Chargers’ secondary will get a big boost this season because 2014 1st round pick Jason Verrett is expected to be healthy after dealing with a shoulder problem for most of his rookie year, dating back to the pre-draft process. Wright was playing very well despite the injury before going down. Despite playing just 230 snaps, Verrett would have finished 16th among cornerbacks on Pro Football Focus had he been eligible, with no one playing fewer snaps and grading out better. Through week 6, the rookie was Pro Football Focus’ #2 ranked cornerback, allowing 44.0% completion. Even though he’s inexperienced and unproven, I still have a lot of hope for the youngster’s future. His injury is a big part of the reason why the Chargers allowed opponents to move the chains at a 69.12% rate in their first 5 games, as opposed to 73.81% in their final 11 games. Verrett’s return will be big for that secondary.
- MLB Nigel Bradham (Buffalo)
Last year: NA
As good as Kiko Alonso was in 2013, the reason they felt comfortable moving him for McCoy this off-season is because Nigel Bradham broke out as a solid every down linebackers in Alonso’s absence last season, grading out 13th among middle linebackers. I didn’t have a problem with them moving Alonso, but I don’t feel like the Bills got appropriate value in return for a talented, cheap, young linebacker. Even though he’s only been a starter for one season, the 2012 4th round pick is not quite a one-year wonder, as flashed on 402 snaps in 2012 and 288 snaps in 2013, prior to breaking out as a starter last season. Heading into his contract year, Bradham could easily have another strong year, which would set him up for a significant payday next off-season.
- RB Justin Forsett (Baltimore)
Last year: NA
Forsett took advantage of the Ray Rice situation and was one of the best running backs in the NFL last season, rushing for 1266 yards and 8 touchdowns on 235 carries (5.39 YPC) and grading out as Pro Football Focus’ 6th ranked running back. The Ravens went from dead last in the NFL in yards per carry in 2013 to 7th in 2014, averaging 4.51 yards per carry. That made life much easier for Flacco and was a huge part of the reason why the Ravens’ offense was so improved last year (going from 30th in rate of moving the chains in 2013 to 7th in 2014).
Forsett’s 5.08 career YPC average suggests that he’s capable of having a similarly strong year in 2015, but he’s already going into his age 30 season and he’s a one-year wonder. Going into 2014, he was a 2008 7th round pick who had never played more than 118 carries in a season in 6 seasons in the league and had 6 carries the prior season in Jacksonville. He’ll also feel the absence of Gary Kubiak, who has a way of getting 1000+ yard seasons out of afterthought running backs. The fact that Forsett couldn’t get anything better than the 3-year, 9 million dollar deal the Ravens re-signed him to this off-season is telling, but I definitely wouldn’t rule out another strong season from him. If he does have another strong year, it’ll be yet another smart off-season signing by Ozzie Newsome as 9 million over 3 years for an above average starting running back, even in today’s NFL, is a steal.
- MLB Mychal Kendricks (Philadelphia)
Last year: NA
Mychal Kendricks was the subject of trade rumors earlier this off-season, both in packages for Marcus Mariota and independently, but the Eagles couldn’t find a good value. Instead, he’ll remain in Philadelphia on a 4-year, 29 million dollar extension, as the starter next to Kiko Alonso, even with DeMeco Ruans being retained. A 2012 2nd round pick, Kendricks graded out below average in both 2012 and 2013 on 955 and 1022 snaps respectively, but had a breakout 2014, grading out 6th among middle linebackers. If he can continue that, he’ll be well worth his extension.