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.
- MLB CJ Mosley (Baltimore)
Last year: NA
CJ Mosley is coming off of only his rookie year, but he is coming off of a strong year. Mosley graded out 10th among middle linebackers on Pro Football Focus as a rookie. The 2014 1st round pick has a bright future and looks like a big part of the next generation of this perennially dominant Ravens defense, along with fellow up and comers Will Hill, Timmy Jernigan, and Brandon Williams.
- QB Russell Wilson (Seattle)
Last year: 89
The Seahawks are so deep and talented on both sides of the field that it’s unfair to attribute their recent success to one person, but this team has certainly been a lot better over the past 3 seasons since they drafted Russell Wilson in the 3rd round in 2012 and solidified the quarterback position. In 2011, they had a strong defense that included many of the same players that headline the defense now, but they missed the playoffs because of a stagnant offense led by quarterback Tarvaris Jackson.
In 3 years in the league, Wilson has made 48 of 48 starts, winning 36 of them. It’s unfair to give him all the credit for those wins considering the defense he has supporting him, but he’s been a big part of it, completing 63.4% of his passes for an average of 7.95 YPA, 72 touchdowns, and 26 interceptions, while grading out 6th, 4th, and 13th among quarterbacks in 2012, 2013, and 2014 respectively. He’s also added 1877 yards and 11 touchdowns on 308 carries (6.09 YPC). His numbers are even more impressive when you consider the fact that he’s had little offensive support from his receiving corps or offensive line in his career. Ahead of his contract year, Wilson got a 4-year, 87.6 million dollar extension this off-season. He might not be quite that good, but he’s close, he’s young (going into his age 27 season), and the Seahawks didn’t have another choice but to pay him. Quarterbacks like him are far too indispensable.
- OT Ricky Wagner (Baltimore)
Last year: NA
The Ravens had a much improved offense from 2013 to 2014. The biggest upgrade was at right tackle, where 2nd year pro Ricky Wagner broke out in his first season as a starter. After 131 nondescript snaps as a 5th round rookie in 2013, Wagner graded out as Pro Football Focus’ 16th ranked offensive tackle in 2014. On top of that, he was the 3rd highest ranked right tackle. He’s a one year wonder and he wasn’t highly drafted, but he could definitely have another strong season. He seems like a young building block for the Ravens and yet another draft day steal by Ozzie Newsome.
- DT Damon Harrison (NY Jets)
Last year: 180
Damon Harrison has shaken off early career weight problems to grade out 4th and 14th among defensive tackles on Pro Football Focus in 2013 and 2014 respectively, including 1st and 3rd among defensive tackles in pure run grade. He’s just a pure two-down base player, but you’d be hard pressed to find a better pure two-down base player in the league. Weight concerns will always exist for the 6-4 350 pound 2012 undrafted free agent, but, as long as he’s in shape, he’s borderline impossible to move off the nose.
- G Louis Vasquez (Denver)
Last year: 48
The only Bronco offensive lineman locked into his 2015 spot is Louis Vasquez at right guard, on an overall poor offensive line. Vasquez only made 8 starts at right guard last season, but that was because the Broncos decided to move him to right tackle late in the season as they were shuffling their offensive front around. This season, I expect Vasquez to stay at right guard, as he struggled at right tackle. At right guard, he graded out 29th at his position on Pro Football Focus in 8 starts and that’s actually a down year for him. The 2009 3rd round pick graded out 26thamong guards in 2009, 29th in 2010, 30th in 2011, 13th in 2012, and 3rd in 2013. Only going into his age 28 season, him bouncing back in his natural position is the surest thing the Broncos have on the offensive line.
- OT Duane Brown (Houston)
Last year: 69
Duane Brown is older (going into his age 30 season), but more proven, with 7 years in the league since being drafted in the 1st round in 2008. He struggled to start his career, grading out below average in each of his first 2 seasons in the league, but he’s graded out above average in the last 5, ranking 21st, 3rd, 2nd, 24th, and 10th respectively among offensive tackles in 2010, 2011, 2012, 2013, and 2014 respectively. Even though he’s a little older now and not as good as he was in his prime in 2011 and 2012, he’s still one of the better offensive tackles in the league and should have another strong season in 2015. He’s expected to miss the first few games of the season with a broken hand and the Texans obviously would want him back sooner rather than later.
- QB Tony Romo (Dallas)
Last year: 172
Tony Romo overcome age and back problems to complete 69.9% of his passes for an average of 8.52 YPA, 34 touchdowns, and 9 interceptions last season, a QB rating of 113.2 that was over 10 points higher than his previous career high QB rating and over 15 points higher than his career average QB rating. Part of that was his supporting cast, but part of that was him, as he graded out as Pro Football Focus’ 6th ranked quarterback, a career high. Romo’s never really been a bad quarterback, grading out 8th, 23rd, 16th, 9th, 9th, 10th, and 13th from 2007-2013 respectively, but he’s also unlikely to repeat the best season of his career in his age 35 season in 2015, supporting cast aside.
- WR DeAndre Hopkins (Houston)
Last year: NA
Hopkins broke out in his 2nd year in the league in 2014, catching 76 passes on 120 attempts (63.3%) for 1210 yards and 6 touchdowns on 534 routes run, an average of 2.27 yards per route run, while grading out as Pro Football Focus’ 12th ranked wide receiver. Hopkins did grade out below average as a rookie and is technically a one-year wonder, but plenty of good receivers struggle as rookies and that doesn’t mean he can’t repeat what he did in 2014 or even continue to get better.
Hopkins will only be in his age 23 season in 2015 and receivers often have a 3rd year breakout year. It’s possible that Hopkins is only scratching the surface on his 1st round talent and will be one of the best few wide receivers in the game in 2-3 years, but even if he just does what he did last year again, he’ll be a huge asset to this team. One concern is he had just 21 catches for 239 yards and no touchdowns in the 5 games that Fitzpatrick didn’t start and finish last season and he could have his numbers kept down by poor quarterback play this season, but that won’t be his fault. He could also see more targets this season with Andre Johnson (141 targets) gone, though he’ll also probably see more double teams as a result. Either way, he’s a very talented young receiver who might just need some help to produce big numbers.
- S George Iloka (Cincinnati)
Last year: NA
George Iloka was a 2012 5th round pick and has been a breakout player for the Bengals over the past 2 seasons. After not playing a defensive snap as a rookie in 2012, Iloka graded out 20th among safeties in 2013 and then 12th among safeties in 2014. It’s the kind of progress you love to see out of a young player, especially one who is only going into his age 25 season. Opposing quarterbacks completed just 38.7% of their passes throwing at him last season, with no touchdowns to 3 interceptions. He’s a prime extension candidate over the next few months.
- TE Martellus Bennett (Chicago)
Last year: NA
Tight end Martellus Bennett led all Bear wide receivers and tight ends with catches last season with 90 and finished 2nd on the team in receiving yards behind Alshon Jeffery, taking those 90 catches for 916 yards and 6 touchdowns. Stuck behind future Hall of Famer Jason Witten for 4 years in Dallas to start his career, Bennett has broken out as a talented starting tight end over the past 3 years out of Witten’s shadow. He’s caught 210 passes for 2301 yards and 16 touchdowns combined over the past 3 seasons, grading out 6th, 19th, and 6th respectively among tight ends and playing in 48 out of 48 possible games.
Even when he was playing a more limited role as the #2 tight end in Dallas, he graded out above average every season, meaning the 2008 2nd round pick has graded out above average in all 7 seasons of his career. A well rounded tight end who can catch passes and block at 6-6 259, Bennett has graded out above average as a run blocker in all 7 seasons of his career and above average as a pass catcher in each of the last 3 seasons as a starter.
- CB Alterraun Verner (Tampa Bay)
Last year: 93
Verner performed well in the first year of a 4-year, 25.5 million dollar deal, signing in Tampa Bay, after spending the first 4 seasons of his career in Tennessee. He missed the first 2 games of his career (78 out of 80 starts made since being drafted in the 4th round by the Titans in 2010), but still graded out 7th among cornerbacks, a career best. Much of that was because he was far and away the best run stopping cornerback in the NFL and he actually graded out slightly below average in coverage, but he’s still a solid cover cornerback with fantastic run stopping abilities and he has graded out above average in all 5 seasons in the league. He’s graded out 21st, 11th, 25th, 13th, and 7th respectively from 2010-2014, including 12th, 13th, 37th, 17th, and 50th in coverage. He’s the only cornerback in the NFL to grade out in the top-25 among cornerbacks on Pro Football Focus in each of the last 5 seasons and should continue strong play into his age 27 season in 2015.
- G Kevin Zeitler (Cincinnati)
Last year: 161
Kevin Zeitler was a 2012 1st round pick and was a starter from day 1. He’s been very good from the word go too, as he has graded out as Pro Football Focus’ 12th, 27th, and 9th ranked guard in 2012, 2013, and 2014 respectively. If there’s one issue with Zeitler, it’s that he’s missed some time with injury, missing 8 games over the past 2 seasons with a variety of minor lower body injuries. Still, it was a no brainer decision by the Bengals to pick up his 5th year option for 2016, which is guaranteed for injury only. The Bengals should look to extend him long-term at some point soon.
- OT Lane Johnson (Philadelphia)
Last year: NA
Lane Johnson is a young player, as he will be only in his age 25 season in his 3rd year in the league in 2015, but he’s already very good. An athletic freak who ran 4.72 at 6-6 303 at the Combine, Johnson was drafted 4th overall in 2013. He graded out slightly below average as a rookie, especially struggling in pass protection, but he was dominant as a run blocker, grading out as Pro Football Focus’ 9thranked offensive tackle in run blocking grade. In 2014, he put it all together, doing well in both aspects and grading out as Pro Football Focus’ 13th ranked offensive tackle, after missing the first 4 games of the season with suspension. In his 3rd year in the league in 2015, he should once again have a strong season and could even be better.
- QB Matt Ryan (Atlanta)
Last year: 110
Matt Ryan, the 3rd overall pick in the 2008 NFL Draft, started his career 56-22 in his first 5 seasons in the league, but lost his first 3 playoff games. He seemed to be past that in 2012, when he beat the Seattle in the divisional round, even though they came up short in the NFC Championship against San Francisco, dropping Ryan’s post-season record to 1-4. Everything has been all downhill since then, as Ryan has gone 10-22 over the past 2 seasons. Once the guy who couldn’t win in the playoffs is now seen as a guy who can’t win at all. However, both of those assessments put too much stock in quarterback wins as an individual stat. Ryan really hasn’t had a lot of help over the past two seasons.
Ryan himself isn’t playing that badly, grading out 5th among quarterbacks in 2014, completing 66.1% of his passes for an average of 7.47 YPA, 28 touchdowns, and 14 interceptions. In 6 seasons in the league, he’s graded out above average in all 6 seasons, including 2nd in 2010, 4th in 2011, 5th in 2012, 14th in 2013, and then 5th last season. He’s completed 64.0% of his passes for an average of 7.19 YPA, 181 touchdowns, and 91 interceptions, while going 66-44 overall, still pretty good, despite recent team struggles.
The offense hasn’t been the problem in Atlanta over the past two seasons, despite problems on the offensive line, in the receiving corps, and at running back, as they’ve moved the chains at the 11th best rate in the NFL in both 2013 and 2014, thanks largely to Ryan. The problem has been the defense, as they finished 27th and 31st in 2013 and 2014 respectively in opponents’ rate of moving the chains. As a result, they’ve finished 20thand 23rd respectively in rate of moving the chains differential in 2013 and 2014, and they’ve won 4 and 6 games in those 2 seasons respectively as a result. Ryan is definitely a strong quarterback, but he can’t do it alone.
- G Orlando Franklin (San Diego)
Last year: 168
Franklin has started 63 of 64 games since the Broncos drafted him in the 2nd round in 2011, 47 at right tackle from 2011-2013 and 16 at left guard last season. He’s graded out above average in each of the last 3 seasons, 12th among offensive tackles in 2012, 17th among offensive tackles in 2013, and 13th among guards in 2014. The Chargers filled a big need by signing him this off-season, bringing him over for 35.5 million over 5 years, a good value considering Mike Iupati got 40 million over the same time period.
- DT Haloti Ngata (Detroit)
Last year: 103
Ngata to Detroit in a trade from Baltimore for a 4th and 5th round pick and will make 8.5 million dollars in the final year of his contract in 2015. He’s going into his age 31 season, but he graded out as Pro Football Focus’ 9th ranked 3-4 defensive end in 2014 and he’s graded out as a top-18 player at his position in every season since Pro Football Focus’ inception in 2007. He’s played in both 3-man and 4-man fronts in his career and both stops the run and rushes the passer well, even at 6-4 340, so he’ll fit in well in Detroit. His age is a concern, as he goes into his age 31 season, but he should have another strong season.
- G Brandon Brooks (Houston)
Last year: 137
Right guard Brandon Brooks has quickly developed into one of the better guards in the NFL and he’s only going into his age 26 season. The 2012 3rd round pick flashed on 111 snaps as a rookie, took over the starting job the following off-season and hasn’t looked back, making 31 of 32 starts over the past 2 seasons and grading out 10th and 8th in 2013 and 2013 respectively. Heading into his contract year, he figures to be paid very well at some point. The Texans will probably try to lock him up ahead of free agency next March.
- WR Alshon Jeffery (Chicago)
Last year: 75
While Brandon Marshall is gone, Alshon Jeffery remains as now the undisputed #1 receiver and he’s a lot more indispensable than Marshall. He graded out 28th among wide receivers last year, including 22nd in pure pass catching grade. On top of that, he graded out 9th among wide receivers in 2013 and is only going into his age 25 season, so he still has upside, as he enters his prime. Since struggling in limited action as a 2nd round rookie in 2012, Jeffery has caught 174 passes for 2554 yards and 17 touchdowns over the past 2 seasons combined. The Bears want to lock him up long-term ahead of his contract year in 2015 and any extension he’s given will be paid for with the money they saved by moving on from Marshall.
- OT Kelvin Beachum (Pittsburgh)
Last year: NA
The best player upfront on the Steelers’ strong offensive line last season was left tackle Kelvin Beachum, who had a breakout 3rd year in the league. The 2012 7th round pick made 17 starts in 2012 and 2013, 11 at left tackle, 5 at right tackle, and 1 at center, but graded out below average in both seasons. However, in 2014, Beachum graded out 5th among offensive tackles, excelling in pass protection. He’s still a one year wonder, which is important to remember, but he’s a talented player. Going into the contract year of his rookie deal, he’s an extension candidate this off-season.
- DE Jared Odrick (Jacksonville)
Last year: 135
Free agent acquisition Jared Odrick will be counted on to safe Jacksonville’s defensive line, after being signed from Miami on a 5-year, 42.5 million dollar deal. It’s an overpay, but, unlike several of their other free agent acquisitions, he is proven as a starter, grading out 16th and 19th among defensive tackles in 2013 and 2014. In Jacksonville, he’ll replace Red Bryant at defensive end in base packages. Bryant, a 6-5 328 pound run stopping specialist, graded out 3rd among 4-3 defensive ends against the run last season, but 57th out of 59 eligible 4-3 defensive ends as a pass rusher, leading to his release ahead of a non-guaranteed 4.25 million dollar salary this off-season.
Odrick is a much more complete player and will play inside in sub packages at his natural position of defensive tackle, so he’ll play more in the Michael Bennett role than the Red Bryant role if we’re comparing this defensive front to the defensive front in Seattle, where Jacksonville head coach Gus Bradley used to be the defensive coordinator. My one concern is Odrick struggled mightily early in his career as both a 3-4 and a 4-3 defensive end, including 59th out of 62 eligible 4-3 defensive ends in 2012. It’s possible those days are past him, but I like him more as a pure interior player.
- CB Sean Smith (Kansas City)
Last year: NA
Sean Smith is coming off likely the best season of his career, grading out 5th among cornerbacks on Pro Football Focus. Smith has a concerning history of inconsistency though, so he’s far from a lock to repeat that kind of season. Smith graded out 10th at his position in 2010, but graded out average or worse in 2011, 2012, and 2013, including 105th out of 109 eligible in 2012. All in all, the 2009 2nd round pick has graded out above average in 4 of 6 seasons in the NFL, but he’s had as many bad seasons and as many average seasons as he’s had dominant seasons. He’s also suspended for the first 3 weeks of the season for substance abuse issues.
- DT Terrance Knighton (Washington)
Last year: 156
Knighton was one of the better defensive tackles in the NFL over the past 2 seasons, grading out as Pro Football Focus’ 9th ranked defensive tackle in 2013 and their 12th ranked in 2014. I expected him to get a deal somewhere in the neighborhood of 40 million over 5 years, but he didn’t come close to that because of concerns about his weight, signing in Washington for 4 million over 1 year. The big defensive tackle known as Pot Roast reportedly played around 330 last season, which seems to be a comfortable playing weight for him, given how well he played last season, but when a player is that big, there’s always a chance his weight gets out of control and it’s very possible that he’s gotten out of shape since the season ended.
That’s a very real concern, but this deal is still an absolute steal. Not only is it significantly less money annually that what I was expecting him to get, but there’s no risk beyond this season if he does show up overweight. On top of that, the fact that he could only get this type of deal could serve as a wakeup call for him and I like that he’s betting on himself with this type of deal. He’ll have every reason to remain motivated this season and that should translate to continued strong play. Even though he’s 330 pounds, he’s a decent pass rusher and has a good chance to stay on the field in some sub packages, meaning he won’t just be a pure base package, two-down run stopper.
- QB Cam Newton (Carolina)
Last year: NA
Cam Newton had the worst quarterback rating of his career in 2014 (82.1), completing 58.5% of his passes for an average of 6.98 YPA, 18 touchdowns, and 12 interceptions. However, a lot of that was the fault of his weak receiving corps and offensive line. Newton still graded out 8th among quarterbacks on Pro Football Focus, making it 4 straight seasons where he’s graded out above average to start his career. He graded out 14th in 2011, 11th in 2012, and 15th in 2013.
Even though he was only average as a passer, he remained arguably the best running quarterback in the NFL, rushing for 539 yards and 5 touchdowns on 103 attempts. In his career, he’s rushed for 2571 yards and 33 touchdowns on 467 attempts in just 4 seasons. On top of that, he’s completed 59.5% of his passes for an average of 7.50 YPA, 82 touchdowns, and 54 interceptions, despite generally having weak supporting casts. This off-season he signed a 5-year, 103.8 million dollar extension that locks him in as their franchise quarterback into the future.
Newton’s only issue last season was injuries, but he didn’t let it affect his play much. He only missed 2 games with injury (one of which was actually the result of a car accident), but he dealt with back, ankle, rib, and foot problems throughout the season. However, those were the first 2 games he’s missed with injury in his career. He takes a lot of hits from pass rushers as a result of a weak offensive line, but he generally is able to tough it out through them thanks to his 6-5 244 frame, much like Ben Roethlisberger early in his career, so I wouldn’t call him injury prone at all.
Newton was especially good in his final 4 games after the Panthers’ week 12 bye, as he was able to rest his whole body. He completed 58.3% of his passes for an average of 6.39 yards per attempt, 6 touchdowns, and 2 interceptions over that tiny period, while rushing for 246 yards and 3 touchdowns on 39 attempts. He continued with that in the playoffs, completing 60.3% of his passes for an average of 6.53 YPA, 4 touchdowns, and 3 interceptions, while rushing for 72 yards on 18 attempts. If the Panthers are able to protect Newton better and his supporting cast is able to be more helpful in 2015, the Panthers should be a much improved offense. Newton is one of their few offensive building blocks.
- WR Golden Tate (Detroit)
Last year: 173
The Lions really missed Calvin Johnson when he was hurt in 2014, but the one thing that was better for the Lions offensively last year was the addition of Golden Tate, who signed a 5-year, 31 million dollar deal last off-season that looks like an absolute bargain right now. Tate graded out 16th among wide receivers in pass catching grade and caught 99 passes on 136 targets (72.8%) for 1331 yards and 4 touchdowns on 626 routes run, an average of 2.13 yards per route run. He was especially productive when Johnson was out, as Tate routinely beat double coverage to give Stafford at least one option to throw to with Megatron injured. He caught 39 passes for 599 yards and 3 touchdowns in those 5 games. He wasn’t bad in the other 11 games though, catching 60 passes for 732 yards and 1 touchdown, 87 catches for 1065 yards and 1 touchdown over 16 games.
That came as a surprise to a lot of people, as he never had even a 1000+ yard season in his career prior to 2014, but that was because his numbers were kept down by a run heavy offense in Seattle. He averaged 1.80 yards per route run in 2012 and 2.01 yards per route run in 2013, so his 2.13 yards per route run average in 2013 was barely a career high. He also graded out 16th in pass catching grade on Pro Football Focus in 2012 and 16th in 2013. He didn’t suddenly become better last season and he’s not a one-year wonder. He’s just finally in a good offense for him. His numbers could take a hit this season with Johnson healthy and stealing targets, but he still produced at a high level with Johnson out last season. He’ll see plenty of single coverage opposite Johnson and should finish in the 1000-1200 yard range. Johnson and Tate are arguably the best wide receiver duo in the NFL.
- OT Sebastian Vollmer (New England)
Last year: 163
Right tackle Sebastian Vollmer was the Patriots’ most reliable offensive lineman last season. He made all 15 starts that mattered (he sat for the Patriots’ week 17 contest when they had the #1 seed locked up), graded out as Pro Football Focus’ 11th ranked offensive tackle, and was the Patriots’ only offensive lineman to play a snap and grade out above average in both pass protection and run blocking. This is nothing new for him, as he graded out 8th, 17th, 19th, 14th, and 21st respectively in 5 seasons from 2009-2013, but what was new for him is that he didn’t get hurt, after missing 22 games with injury in his first 6 seasons in the league combined (after going in the 2nd round in 2009). He’s hard to trust injury wise, especially going into his age 31 season in 2015, but he should remain one of the best right tackles in the game when healthy.