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.
- OLB Sean Lee (Dallas)
Last year: NA
Sean Lee is returning from a torn ACL that cost him all of last season. With Rolando McClain establishing himself at middle linebacker in Lee’s absence, Lee will play outside for the Cowboys this season, provided he can stay healthy. Lee has injury issues that date back to his collegiate days at Penn State, has never played all 16 games in a season in 5 years in the league, and has missed 31 games with injuries over the past 3 seasons, including, of course, all of last season.
However, he’s never graded out below average in his career and was Pro Football Focus’ 14th ranked middle linebacker in 2011, 2nd ranked before injury in 2012 (6 games), and 1st ranked before injury in 2013 (9 games). Only going into his age 29 season, Lee should still be able to play at a high level in 2015, provided he can stay on the field. He’s never played outside linebacker in his career, but the 6-2 236 pounder has a good skill set to play every down out there.
- DE Everson Griffen (Minnesota)
Last year: NA
The Vikings gave Griffen a 5-year, 42.5 million dollar contract ahead of free agency last off-season, keeping their 2010 4th round pick long-term. It was a risky move because Griffen was largely unproven, but he broke out in 2014 in his first season as an every down player, grading out 8th among 4-3 defensive ends. It still was a weird move for three reasons. One, it’s unclear who else would have paid him that much. Second, he never graded out better than 20th among 4-3 defensive ends in the first 4 years of his career, from 2010-2013. Part of that had to do with lack of playing time, but he only graded out above average in 2 of those 4 seasons and, in that season he ranked 20th, he actually played 717 snaps, so it wasn’t like he didn’t have any chances. And third, Griffen is still unlikely to exceed the value of that contract long-term, even if he does play well, so it’s a contract with much more downside than upside. All that being said, with full hindsight, the move does appear to have been the right one.
- MLB Derrick Johnson (Kansas City)
Last year: 25
Derrick Johnson is going into his age 33 season coming off of a torn Achilles, which is concerning, but he was so good before the injury that he should still be an asset for them inside. Johnson was a top-5 middle linebacker on Pro Football Focus in every season from 2010-2013. 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.
- DT Tyrone Crawford (Dallas)
Last year: NA
The Cowboys’ defense exceeded expectations in 2014 thanks to breakout years from several players. The biggest breakout year was by Tyrone Crawford, who graded out as Pro Football Focus’ 13th ranked defensive tackle after starting the first 3 games of the season at defensive end. The 6-4 285 pounder “tweener” is a great fit as a one gap penetrator inside in Rod Marinelli’s defense. He’s a one year wonder, after struggling on 303 snaps as a 3rd round rookie in 2012 and then missing all of 2013 with injury, but he could easily have another strong year inside for the Cowboys in 2015, which would set him up for a big payday as a free agent next off-season. He’s not very good against the run, but he’s a nightmare for opponents’ interior offensive linemen as a pass rusher.
- OLB KJ Wright (Seattle)
Last year: NA
KJ Wright and his accomplishments get lost on Seattle’s amazing defense, but he’s still been a great player for them since they drafted him in the 4th round in 2011. Wright has graded out above average in all 4 seasons he’s been in the league, ranking 17th, 14th, 13th, and 6th in 2011-2014 respectively and missing just 4 games with injury. Wright took his game to the next level in 2014 and earned a 4-year, 27 million dollar deal ahead of free agency this off-season and his age 26 season in 2015.
- CB Patrick Peterson (Arizona)
Last year: 43
Peterson is believed by many to be one of the top cornerbacks in the NFL, up there with Darrelle Revis and Richard Sherman, but he certainly didn’t play that well last season, grading out below average and finishing 3rd in touchdowns allowed (8) and 4th in penalties committed (13) among cornerbacks. Peterson says last year’s struggles were the result of undiagnosed diabetes, which makes a lot of sense. He says he has it under control right now, something he’ll have to prove on the field. Only going into his age 25 season, having graded out 16th and 14th among cornerbacks in 2012 and 2013 respectively, Peterson’s bounce back chances are good.
- OT Donald Penn (Oakland)
Last year: NA
The Raiders signed Donald Penn to a 2-year, 9.6 million dollar deal last off-season, after he was cut by the Buccaneers, and he had a great year, grading out 7th among offensive tackles. Penn has graded out above average in 4 straight seasons on Pro Football Focus, but appeared to be on the decline in 2013, grading out 32nd, which is why the Buccaneers cut him and replaced him with the younger Anthony Collins. The Buccaneers’ loss was the Raiders’ gain. Penn is going into his age 32 season and has a history of weight problems so I don’t expect him to play quite as well as he did last season, which was arguably the best season of his career, but he should once again be a strong blindside protector.
- WR DeSean Jackson (Washington)
Last year: 164
DeSean Jackson put up good numbers last season, catching 56 passes for 1169 yards and 6 touchdowns. He’s never been consistently as good as he was in 2013 with the Eagles, when he graded out 8th among wide receivers and caught 82 passes for 1332 yards and 9 touchdowns, but he’s graded out above average in 3 straight seasons and has surpassed 1000+ yards 4 times in 7 seasons in the league since being drafted in the 2nd round by the Eagles in 2008.
- OLB Trent Cole (Indianapolis)
Last year: 96
Colts signed Trent Cole to a 2-year, 14 million dollar deal this off-season, after the Eagles cut him to avoid paying him a non-guaranteed 10.025 million dollar salary for 2015. Cole was still playing at a high level last season and has a good chance to continue at least solid play this season. Cole has still graded out above average in every season of Pro Football Focus’ 8-year existence, including 7th among 3-4 outside linebackers in 2013 and 19th in 2014. He’s going into his age 33 season, but he could still be the best edge rusher on a team that really needed help there.
- QB Ryan Tannehill (Miami)
Last year: NA
Tannehill has gotten better statistically in every year of his career, going from a quarterback rating of 76.1 as a rookie to 81.7 in 2013 and then 92.8 last season. He finished 2014 having completed 66.4% of his passes for an average of 6.86 yards per attempt, 27 touchdowns, and 12 interceptions. On the season, he graded out as Pro Football Focus’ 11th ranked quarterback. He finished 5th in completion percentage, had a strong TD:INT ratio, with his only subpar area being his YPA average. In his career, he’s been below 7 YPA in every season, including last year.
However, I’m not worried about that for two reasons. One, he wasn’t necessarily inaccurate downfield. The offense just called for him to throw a lot of shorter passes, likely because the Dolphins surprisingly ranked 2nd the NFL in yards per carry (4.69 YPC). Tannehill completed 58.6% of his passes between 10-19 yards downfield, which is better than league average, and, while he only completed 30.2% of his passes 20+ yards downfield, he ranked 22nd out of 38 eligible in accuracy (completions + drops/attempts) 20+ yards downfield, so he wasn’t necessarily bad in that aspect of the game.
Second, I find completion percentage to be a more important stat than anything, as high completion percentage often correlates with your offense regularly being on schedule. I realize that Tannehill’s completion percentage is inflated by the types of passes he was attempting and that he owes a lot of that high number to his running game making things easier for him, but the Dolphins finished 8th in the NFL in rate of moving the chains last season, moving them at a 75.33% rate.
Tannehill doesn’t deserve all the credit for that, but he deserves some, especially as he was dealing with poor offensive line play and an average at best receiving corps. Tannehill also contributed to that strong running game, rushing for 311 yards and 1 touchdown on 56 attempts (5.55 YPC). Besides, while the Dolphins ran well on a per play average, they didn’t run that often overall. Including pass attempts, sacks, and quarterback carries, Tannehill was involved on 66.5% of the Dolphins offensive plays last season, one of the highest usage rates in the NFL.
He hasn’t really had much help on offense, but the 2012 8th overall pick has graded out above average in all 3 seasons he’s been in the NFL, completing 61.9% of his passes for an average of 6.77 YPA, 63 touchdowns, and 42 interceptions, while rushing for 760 yards and another 4 touchdowns on 145 carries (5.24 YPC). The Dolphins gave him a 4-year, 74 million dollar extension this off-season and I think he was worth it. Right now, there are 20 quarterbacks in the NFL, including Tannehill, whose contracts have an average salary of 12+ million dollars. Excluding guys on rookie deals, only one other player makes more than 5.25 million annually on his contract. There isn’t a middle ground with quarterbacks in today’s NFL. Right now, I’d say Tannehill is one of the top 10-15 quarterbacks in the NFL with the potential to get even better, going into his 4th year in the league, his age 27 season, so the deal makes sense.
- DE Carlos Dunlap (Cincinnati)
Last year: 85
Dunlap, a 2010 2nd round pick, has been a consistently solid player throughout his career, grading out above average in all 5 seasons of his career. As a rookie in 2010, he graded out 21st on 287 snaps as a rotational player and then he graded out 4th, 9th, 8th, and 15th in 2011, 2012, 2013, and 2014 respectively. The Bengals gave him a 6-year, 40 million dollar deal two off-seasons ago even though he only had 2 career starts and it’s proven to be well worth it as he’s translated well from a talented backup to a strong starter. He’s only the 11th highest paid 4-3 defensive end in the NFL in terms of average annual salary.
- CB Casey Hayward (Green Bay)
Last year: NA
Casey Hayward should be the starter this year, after making just 9 starts in his first 3 seasons in the league. The 2012 2nd round pick graded out 4th among cornerbacks on 703 snaps (7 starts) as a rookie and some (including me) thought he should have been Defensive Rookie of the Year. However, he missed 13 games with injury in 2013 and fell down the depth chart, playing just 435 snaps in 2014, as the 4th cornerback. He still graded out 9th among cornerbacks on those 435 snaps though, making it 2 times in 3 years that no one has played fewer snaps and graded out better at the position than Heyward. Even in the season he largely missed with injury, he graded out above average. An every down starting job is long overdue and it looks like he’ll get his chance in 2015, which could lead to a big-time breakout year and an expensive contract next off-season.
- MLB Brandon Marshall (Denver)
Last year: NA
Brandon Marshall had a breakout year for the Broncos last year, grading out as Pro Football Focus’ 4th ranked 4-3 outside linebacker. He’s a one-year wonder as the 2012 5th rounder played a combined 15 snaps in his first 2 seasons in the NFL and he’s also coming off of a significant injury, as his breakout season was ended prematurely by a Lisfranc injury, a big part of the reason why the Broncos’ season fell apart. Marshall missed most of the off-season, but is now healthy for week 1. He’ll move inside to middle linebacker in the Broncos’ new 3-4 defense.
- DE Jason Hatcher (Washington)
Last year: 109
Hatcher was a great value on a 4-year, 27 million dollar deal last off-season. The 2006 3rd round pick has been a late bloomer, but has graded out above average in 6 straight seasons, including the last 4 as a starter. Over those past 4 seasons, he’s graded out 6th among 3-4 defensive ends (2011), 4th among 3-4 defensive ends (2012), 8th among defensive tackles (2013), and then 10th among 3-4 defensive ends last season, in his first year in Washington. He’s going into his age 33 season, which is a concern, but he could still have a strong season in 2015. He’s yet to really show any decline.
- WR Keenan Allen (San Diego)
Last year: 80
Allen fell to the 3rdround in 2013 as a result of a bad ankle and a slow 40 time, but he shocked everyone as a rookie, catching 71 passes for 1046 yards and 8 touchdowns, despite struggling to get playing time early in the season. He finished his rookie year 10th among wide receivers on Pro Football Focus and finished 2nd for the Offensive Rookie of the Year award behind Eddie Lacy. Allen was just one of 11 wide receivers to have 1000+ yards as a rookie over the past 20 seasons and just one of 3 who weren’t first round picks.
Allen wasn’t quite as good in 2014, catching 77 passes for 783 yards and 4 touchdowns, missing 2 games with injuries and being limited in others, but he still graded out above average and is a solid bet to bounce back in 2015. However, I don’t think he has the upside of some of the other guys who had 1000+ yard seasons as a rookie (including the likes of Odell Beckham, Randy Moss, AJ Green, and Joey Galloway). There’s still a reason he fell to the 3rd round, as he lacks top end speed and athleticism and is fairly injury prone. When I think of a career trajectory for him, I think he’ll have a career more in line with Anquan Boldin or Marques Colston, the other two non-first round picks to have 1000+ yards as a rookie. He’s a big asset in the passing game, but he’s quite not one of the top receivers in the NFL.
- CB Jimmy Smith (Baltimore)
Last year: NA
In 2014, Jimmy Smith graded out as Pro Football Focus’ 20th ranked cornerback despite missing the final 8 games of the season on injured reserve with a foot injury. Through the first 7 games of the season before getting hurt, he was Pro Football Focus’ 10th ranked cornerback, including 4th in pure coverage grade, allowing 51.3% completion and 4.18 yards per attempt on 39 attempts. It remains to be seen whether or not he can be that dominant of a cornerback for a whole season, but the Ravens clearly believe he can, giving him a 4-year, 41 million dollar extension this off-season.
It’s a risky deal that doesn’t appear to have much upside. It makes him one of the highest paid cornerbacks in the NFL and he is unlikely to exceed that contract value, even if he does continue playing well. The problem is his play last season before getting hurt is inconsistent with his past history, as he was Pro Football Focus’ 2nd worst ranked cornerback in 2012 and their 35th ranked cornerback in 2013. The good news is that he’s a former 1st round pick (2011), who has improved in every season as a starter and could easily have a strong, full season in his age 27 season in 2015. Either way, there’s no question his return will improve Baltimore’s secondary, as long as he doesn’t get hurt again (he’s missed 17 games in 4 seasons in the league).
- OT Zach Strief (New Orleans)
Last year: 187
A late bloomer who didn’t become a full-time starter since 2011, Strief, a 2006 7th round pick, has made 54 starts over the past 4 seasons and graded out above average in 3 of those 4 seasons, excluding an injury plagued 2012 season. He hasn’t just graded out above average; he’s excelled, grading out 12th among offensive tackles in 2011, 9th in 2013, and 17th last season. His age is starting to become a concern, as he goes into his age 32 season, but he’s much more the solution than the problem upfront for the Saints and one of the best right tackles in the game. The Saints drafted his long-term replacement in the first round in 2015, Andrus Peat, but Strief was able to easily hold him off for the starting job, forcing Peat to see action at left guard instead.
- OLB Brian Orakpo (Tennessee)
Last year: 68
Orakpo was Pro Football Focus’ 4th ranked 3-4 outside linebacker in 2013 and was franchised tagged by the Redskins as a result. However, Orakpo ended up missing 9 games with a torn pectoral in 2014, the 3rd time in his career that he’s torn his pectoral. He hit free agency again having missed 24 of 48 games over the past 3 seasons with torn pectorals, but still got a 4-year, 31 million dollar deal from the Tennessee Titans. He’s very talented when he’s on the field though. In addition to his strong 2013, the 2009 1st round pick also ranked 7th at his position in 2011. He’s an obvious injury risk, but he has a huge upside, still only going into his age 29 season.
- S Antoine Bethea (San Francisco)
Last year: NA
Antoine Bethea was one of the few bright spots for the 49ers in 2014. The veteran looked like he was on the decline last off-season, grading out below average in both 2012 and 2013, after grading out above average from 2007-2011. Bethea proved he still had something left in the tank though last season, grading out as Pro Football Focus’ 7th ranked safety. His age is a concern as he goes into his age 31 season, but he should be dependable again and he hasn’t missed a start in 7 years, since 2007.
- DE Stephen Paea (Washington)
Last year: NA
Needing to fix their defense, the Redskins signed several veteran starters as free agents this off-season, including Stephen Paea, who got 21 million over 4 years. Paea comes over from Chicago, where he was Pro Football Focus’ 11th ranked defensive tackle in 2014. He’s a one-year wonder because he graded out below average in each of his first 3 seasons in the NFL from 2011-2013, after the Bears took him in the 2nd round in 2011, but he was a very solid value as a free agent and he has a good chance to have another strong year in 2015. He’ll move to defensive end in Washington’s 3-4. He wouldn’t seem to be a great scheme fit at 6-1 303, but he should be an immediate and noticeable upgrade on the Redskins’ defensive line.
- OLB Terrell Suggs (Baltimore)
Last year: 150
Terrell Suggs is getting up there in age, going into his age 33 season. However, Suggs is also coming off of a dominant year and has a good chance to have another strong year. Suggs was Pro Football Focus’ 4th ranked 3-4 outside linebacker in 2014, which is pretty par for the course for him. He ranked 9th among 3-4 outside linebackers in 2013, 3rd among 4-3 defensive ends in 2011, and 8th among 4-3 defensive ends in 2010, with an injury plagued 2012 season in between.
- G Brandon Linder (Jacksonville)
Last year: NA
A 2014 3rd round pick, Brandon Linder proved to be a steal during a very strong rookie season, grading out 10th among guards, making him one of the few bright spots in an otherwise dismal 2014 season for the Jaguars. He’s still a one-year wonder, but he’s one of the few young building blocks the Jaguars have on either side of the ball.
- MLB Daryl Smith (Baltimore)
Last year: NA
Daryl Smith is another one of the cheap, smart free agent signings that Ozzie Newsome has made over the past few off-seasons. Smith came cheap two off-seasons ago because he was limited to 2 games by injury in 2012 and because he was going into his 30s. However, Smith was a dominant player before the injury, grading out 1st, 8th, and 2nd among 4-3 outside linebackers in 2009, 2010, and 2011. Smith has basically picked up where he left off before the injury since joining the Ravens and moving inside in their 3-4. Ray Lewis’ replacement, Smith looked like a steal on a cheap one-year deal in 2013, grading out 14th among middle linebackers and earning a 4-year, 16.1 million deal last off-season. Smith continued to be a value for the Ravens in 2014, grading out 7th at his position in 2014. Like Suggs, he’s going into his age 33 season so it’s fair to wonder how long he can keep this up, but he should have another solid year in him.
- OT Anthony Castonzo (Indianapolis)
Last year: 199
The Colts drafted Anthony Castonzo in the 1st round in 2011 and he has made 60 of 64 starts at left tackle in 4 seasons in the league. One of the few bright spots on Andrew Luck’s offensive line, he has graded out above average in each of the last 3 seasons. In 2012, 2013, and 2014 respectively, he ranked 36th, 27th, and 12thamong offensive tackles and should have a similar season in 2015. Headed into the final year of his rookie deal, Castonzo will make 7.4 million this season after having his 5th year option picked up and is definitely a candidate for a lucrative long-term extension.
- MLB Lawrence Timmons (Pittsburgh)
Last year: NA
Lawrence Timmons has played in 126 of 128 games since being drafted in the 1st round in 2007 and has generally been a very solid player, grading out above average in 6 of the last 7 seasons, including four top-10 finishes among middle linebackers on Pro Football Focus and three top-5 finishes. Last season, he graded out 11th and, only going into his age 29 season, he should have another solid season in 2015. Behind Cameron Heyward, he’s their best defensive player and arguably one of just three (Brandon Boykin) above average starters on a Steeler defense that is far from what it used to be.