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 Derrick Morgan (Tennessee)
Last year: 159
A rare first round hit by the Titans, Derrick Morgan’s career got off to a slow start as he was limited to 112 snaps by a torn ACL as a rookie in 2010 and struggled in his return from that injury in 2011, grading out as Pro Football Focus’ 64th ranked 4-3 defensive end out of 67 eligible. However, he’s graded out above average in each of the past three seasons, grading out as Pro Football Focus’ 5th ranked 4-3 defensive end in 2012, 11th ranked 4-3 defensive end in 2013, and 8th ranked 3-4 outside linebacker in 2014. Most importantly, he’s missed just 2 games over the past 4 seasons and doesn’t have any significant injuries on his record other than that torn ACL. His scheme versatility and his pass rush ability are very valuable and the Titans did well to lock up a talented young player like him on a very reasonable 4-year, 27 million dollar deal this off-season.
- DE Jason Pierre-Paul (NY Giants)
Last year: 182
Jason Pierre-Paul was tough to place because even the Giants don’t know his long-term or short-term prognosis after he lost a finger and fractured his thumb in a firework accident over 4th of July weekend. It sounds like he’s expected back sooner rather than later, but it’s tough to project how he’ll be able to play defensive end with only 9 fingers. JPP would have been at least 50 spots higher before the accident and might still be too high, but he’s a fantastic player when right so I’ll put him here.
JPP was able to bounce back from a down 2013 season in which he dealt with serious back problems all season, grading out 7th among eligible 4-3 defensive ends last season. He’s graded out above average in all 5 seasons of his career and, with the exception of that injury plagued 2013 season, he’s been very dominant recently, finishing #6 among 4-3 defensive ends in 2011, #3 in 2012, and then last year’s #7 finish. His back problems are behind him, but, again, his hand is a serious question mark.
- C Ryan Kalil (Carolina)
Last year: 61
Ryan Kalil is the only proven veteran on a weak Panther offensive line, as the center is going into his 9th year in the league, after getting drafted in the 2nd round in the 2007 NFL Draft. He’s made 100 starts in 8 seasons in the league and has graded out above average in 5 of the last 6 seasons (with the exception being an injury shortened 2012 season), including 11th last season. Still only going into his age 30 season, he’s one of the better centers in the NFL and definitely the Panthers’ best offensive lineman.
- G Kelechi Osemele (Baltimore)
Last year: NA
Kelechi Osemele, a 2012 2nd round pick, made 16 starts at right tackle as a rookie, grading out about average, but really flourished once moved to left guard during the Ravens’ playoff run to the Super Bowl. The Ravens left him at left guard for 2013, a smart move, but back problems kept him from meeting his potential. He struggled through 443 snaps in 7 games before getting surgery and being put on IR. Osemele returned in 2014 though and had the breakout year many were expecting from him in 2013, grading out as Pro Football Focus’ 6th ranked guard. He’s still a one year wonder in terms of being a top level offensive lineman, but I would not at all be shocked if he continued that high level of play into 2015 and beyond.
- OLB Clay Matthews (Green Bay)
Last year: 44
With the team thin at middle linebacker, the Packers are expected to play Clay Matthews inside even more than they did last season. Despite the Packers’ lack of talent at middle linebacker, I still don’t think moving Matthews inside to play regular snaps is the right move. Even though it’s only in base packages, it still reduces his chances at rushing the passer, which is really where he’s best. He’s solid in coverage, but he’s better moving forward than backward. He also struggled against the run last season, largely due to the significant amount of time he spent out of position. On top of that, Matthews himself reportedly doesn’t like playing middle linebacker because he has such great pass rush ability and sacks get contracts. The move doesn’t make sense all around.
Matthews graded out 18th among 3-4 outside linebackers overall last season, doing his best work as a pass rusher, ranking 16th at the position in that aspect. That’s pretty good, but he’s been much better in the past when he’s played a more traditional role. Prior to an injury plagued 2013 season, Matthews graded 6th, 6th, 5th, and 1st respectively among 3-4 outside linebackers from his rookie year in 2009 to 2012 and was one of the best defensive players in the game, primarily rushing the passer off the edge. The Packers shouldn’t mess with that, but it appears they will, which drops Matthews a bit.
- G Larry Warford (Detroit)
Last year: 70
Larry Warford had a bit of a sophomore slump in 2014, after a dominant year as a 3rd round rookie in 2013. Warford had a fantastic rookie year in 2013, grading out 4th among guards and not missing a single snap. However, in 2014, Warford missed 3 games with injury and “only” graded out 16th among guards. That certainly wasn’t bad, but the Lions will be hoping for a bounce back year from a player who is a young building block.
- MLB Stephen Tulloch (Detroit)
Last year: 65
Stephen Tulloch looked on his way to another strong season in 2014, before tearing his ACL week 3, which ended his season after 130 snaps. Tulloch graded out 2nd among middle linebackers in 2013, 6th among middle linebackers in 2011, and has graded out above average in 7 of 8 seasons in Pro Football Focus’ history. He could bounce back, but he’s going into his age 30 season, coming off of a serious injury, and he’s had problems with his knee before. In 2012, the only season he graded out below average, it was because he played through a serious knee problem. Given that, him bouncing back is not such a sure thing, but it will be good to have him back.
- OLB Anthony Barr (Minnesota)
Last year: NA
Like on offense with Teddy Bridgewater, the Vikings benefitted significantly from a first round rookie on defense, as 9th overall pick Anthony Barr contributed in a big way as a rookie, great to see from a guy regarded as really raw coming out of UCLA. He’s only going into his age 23 season and only his 4th season on offense after spending the first 2 seasons of his collegiate career as a fullback. He wowed at the Combine running a 4.66 40 at 6-5 255, looking like a running back in a pass rusher’s body, and he has a great future after such a strong rookie year. He ranked 8th among 4-3 outside linebackers as a rookie, largely playing as a traditional 4-3 outside linebacker, dropping into coverage on 340 of 455 pass play snaps. With minimal depth on the defensive line, Barr could play more of a hybrid role this season, rushing the passer off the edge in sub packages, while staying at 4-3 outside linebacker in sub packages. He was much more effective as a pass rusher than he was in coverage as a rookie, and predictably so, so the move makes sense.
- CB Chris Culliver (Washington)
Last year: NA
The Redskins made a good move to fill a major need at the cornerback position by signing Chris Culliver, previously of the 49ers, to a 4-year, 32 million dollar deal this off-season. He was just a 3rd round pick of the 49ers in 2011, but he’s quietly one of the better cornerbacks in the NFL. He had a significant role from the word go in 2011, playing 425 snaps and then 691 in 2012, grading out above average in both seasons, including 29th at his position in 2012. He missed all of 2013 with a torn ACL, but he bounced back in a big way from that torn ACL in 2014 in his first full season as a starter, making 14 starts and grading out 14th at his position. On top of that, that 2013 ACL tear is really the only issue he’s had with injuries, missing a combined 2 games in his other 3 seasons as a pro. He’s easily the Redskins’ best defensive back.
- OLB Thomas Davis (Carolina)
Last year: 126
Davis is older than fellow Panther linebacker Luke Kuechly, as Davis is already going into his age 32 season, but he’s been almost as good over the past 2 seasons, grading out 4th among 4-3 outside linebackers in 2013 and 5th in 2014. Davis has somewhat miraculously played in 46 of 48 games over the past 3 seasons combined, after being limited to 9 games total from 2009-2011 by 3 separate ACL tears. Davis has graded out above average in each of the last 3 seasons, especially dominating over the past 2. You do worry about him going into his age 32 season with that kind of injury history, but he’s shown no signs of decline yet.
- S Tashaun Gipson (Cleveland)
Last year: NA
Tashaun Gipson is coming off of a breakout year, grading out as Pro Football Focus’ 10th ranked safety. He’s still a one year wonder though as the 2012 undrafted free agent graded out below average in each of his first 2 seasons in the league, including 69th out of 86 eligible in 2013 in his first year as a starter. He’ll need to prove it again. He’s going into a contract year, but the Browns don’t seem too eager to give him a long-term deal. They’ll have the franchise tag available next off-season and they don’t want to commit too much guaranteed money to a one-year wonder, especially one who missed the final 5 games of the season with a knee injury, which the Browns apparently still have concerns about. He can clear up those concerns with another strong year though, which would sit him up for a really nice payday somewhere.
- DT Kawaan Short (Carolina)
Last year: 152
The Panthers used 1st and 2nd round picks in 2013 to shore up the defensive tackle position, taking Star Lotulelei in the 1st and Kawaan Short in the 2nd. Lotulelei has been good, but Short has easily been the better of the two. Lotulelei has graded out 17th and 24th among defensive tackles in the last 2 seasons respectively, while Short has graded out 13th and 9th among defensive tackles over those 2 seasons. Only going into his age 26 season, Short could be one of the best defensive tackles in the league this season.
- DE Sheldon Richardson (NY Jets)
Last year: 60
Before even training camp started, the Jets were dealt a huge blow to their defense and it didn’t even involve an injury, as stud defensive end Sheldon Richardson was suspended for 4 games in violation of the league’s substance abuse policy. Making matters even worse, Richardson was arrested on a variety of counts after that, including reckless driving and drug possession, and now he’s expected to get an even longer suspension. Richardson, a 2013 1st round pick, has graded out 5th and 2nd among 3-4 defensive ends in 2013 and 2014 respectively, emerging as one of the best defensive players in the whole league, only going into his age 25 season. He’ll definitely be missed, especially if he misses 6-8 games, which sounds likely. He would have been probably 100 spots higher if not for the off-the-field concerns because he is a fantastic player on the field.
- OLB Julius Peppers (Green Bay)
Last year: NA
Peppers’ career looked like it was coming to a close at this time last year, after he got cut by the Bears following a 2013 season in which he graded out 40th out of 52 eligible among 4-3 defensive ends. While Green Bay picked him up and gave him a good amount of money, his future still looked bleak going into his age 34 season. Peppers proved a lot of people wrong by grading out 7th among 3-4 outside linebackers in his first year at the position in 2014, after spending the rest of his career at 4-3 defensive end. However, he’s unlikely to repeat that in his age 35 season in 2015 and could see his abilities fall off a cliff. Even though he’s only graded out below average once in Pro Football Focus’ 8 year history and even though he’s likely Hall of Fame bound with 125.5 career sacks (16th most all-time), he’s hard to trust this season.
- G Mike Iupati (Arizona)
Last year: 142
Mike Iupati was signed to a 5-year, 40 million dollar deal by the Cardinals this off-season, coming over from San Francisco. The 17th overall pick in the 2010 NFL Draft by the 49ers, Iupati has graded out in the top-14 at his position on Pro Football Focus in 4 of the 5 seasons he’s been in the league, with the exception coming in an injury plagued 2013, when he still graded out above average. One concern is that, while he’s annually one of the top run blocking guards in the NFL, he has graded out below average as a pass protector in 3 of 5 seasons so, as talented as he is, he’s not that well-rounded and he does have a glaring weakness. He’ll be a big asset when on the field, though he drops a few spots because he’ll miss the first few weeks of the season with a knee problem.
- OLB Mario Williams (Buffalo)
Last year: 112
The Bills signed Mario Williams to a then record 6-year, 96 million dollar deal 3 off-seasons ago, coming over from Houston. He hasn’t quite lived up to that deal, but he’s continued his strong play and shown great versatility, a huge asset for a Bills team that seems to change its defensive scheme every year. This year, with Rex Ryan coming in, they will move back to a 3-4, much like one they ran in 2013 under defensive coordinator Mike Pettine, who is a Rex Ryan disciple.
Mario Williams played the “elephant” role in 2013 in the 3-4, playing both 3-4 defensive end and 3-4 outside linebacker and rushing the passer both from the inside and the outside in sub packages. The 6-7 291 pounder is a good fit for the role and graded out 17th among 3-4 outside linebackers that season. The #1 overall pick in the 2006 NFL Draft, Williams has graded out above average in each of the 8 seasons in Pro Football Focus’ history, including 9th among 4-3 defensive ends in 2014, playing well both in a 3-4 and a 4-3. Even going into his age 30 season, he should continue this strong play in 2015.
- C Maurkice Pouncey (Pittsburgh)
Last year: NA
The Steelers signed Pouncey to a then record 5 year, 44 million dollar extension last off-season. He hasn’t been the top tier center that kind of money suggests and it was an overpay, especially off of a 2013 ACL tear, but he’s still a valuable member of this offensive line. He’s made 62 starts in 5 seasons in the league, even though he lost basically all of 2013 to the ACL tear, and he’s graded out above average in every healthy season since he’s been in the league, maxing out at 6th overall among centers on Pro Football Focus in 2014, very good to see after an injury like he suffered in 2013. Only going into his age 26 season, Pouncey should have another strong season in 2015 and could even get better. He’d be higher if he wasn’t set to miss the first half of the season with a broken leg.
- S Corey Graham (Buffalo)
Last year: NA
The Bills lost safety Da’Norris Searcy this off-season, as he signed a 4-year, 23.75 million dollar deal with the Titans this season, following a 2014 season where he graded out 18th among safeties on 666 snaps. Duke Williams was originally slated to be his replacement, after flashing on 551 snaps last season, in the first significant action of his career, following a 36-snap 2013 season, as a 4th round rookie. However, he struggled this off-season, so the Bills seem to have moved away from that plan. The used their first draft pick on cornerback Ronald Darby, taking him in the 2nd round, and will be moving cornerback Corey Graham to safety to take Searcy’s spot.
Graham was the steal of the off-season for the Bills in 2014, grading out 8th among cornerbacks, after signing 4-year, 16 million dollar deal, coming over from Baltimore. That’s the best season of his career and he might not be able to repeat it, moving to safety for his age 30 season, but he’s not exactly a one-year wonder, grading out above average in 4 straight seasons, playing both outside cornerback and slot cornerback. I expect the 5-11 195 pounder to be a solid safety in his first year at the new position. His versatility is a definite plus.
- G John Greco (Cleveland)
Last year: NA
Greco graded out as Pro Football Focus’ 11th ranked guard last season and has become one of the best guards in the NFL. A reserve early in his career, Greco has graded out above average on Pro Football Focus in each of his 7 seasons in the NFL, including each of the last 3 seasons as a starter. Making 40 starts over the past 3 seasons, 20 at left guard, 15 at right guard, and 1 at center, Greco has graded out 19th, 30th, and then 11th respectively in each of the last 3 seasons.
- OLB Jerry Hughes (Buffalo)
Last year: 125
Jerry Hughes was a 2010 1st round pick, but was written off as a bust by the Colts two off-seasons ago. He got sent to Buffalo for reserve linebacker Kelvin Sheppard, after playing just 240 snaps in 2010 and 2011 combined and grading out 25th among 34 eligible 3-4 outside linebackers in 2012 on 610 snaps. Hughes turned out just to be a late bloomer, grading out 8th among 3-4 outside linebackers in 2013 and then showed scheme versatility and proved he wasn’t a one-year wonder last season, by grading out 14th among 4-3 defensive ends. An integral part of the Bills’ dominant front 7, Hughes very much deserved his new deal, worth 45 million over 5 years.
- RB CJ Anderson (Denver)
Last year: NA
In 20 seasons as a head coach or offensive coordinator, Kubiak has had 8 different running backs put up a combined 15 seasons of 1000 or more yards. Of those 8 running backs, only 1 (Clinton Portis) was drafted higher than the 2nd round and 4 of them, including Justin Forsett last season in Baltimore, were drafted in the 6th round or later. That’s great news for CJ Anderson, an ideal fit for Kubiak’s one cut system, an undrafted player in his own right back in 2013, and a player who was dominant down the stretch for the Broncos last season.
A bright spot down the stretch for the Broncos, Anderson rushed for 849 yards and 8 touchdowns on 179 carries (4.74 YPC). Anderson has very little breakaway speed, but he’s been able to produce despite a career long run of 27, he has 63 first downs on 220 career touches, and he caught 34 passes and pass protected well last season, showing three down ability as Pro Football Focus’ 3rd ranked running back in the first extended experience of his career last season. He’s still unproven, but I like his breakout potential as a 300+ carry runner in Gary Kubiak’s offense.
- C Corey Linsley (Green Bay)
Last year: NA
The Packers got a great center to go in between stud guards TJ Lang and Josh Sitton last off-season, drafting Corey Linsley in the 2014 draft, which was a big part of the reason why the Packers were so good offensively last year. You wouldn’t expect a 5th rounder like Linsley to have the kind of rookie year that he did last year, but he exceeded all expectations, making 16 starts, grading out 5th among centers, and having one of the year’s best rookie seasons by an offensive player, regardless of position. He’s still a one-year wonder and I don’t think he’s at the point where the fact that the whole league let him drop to the 5th round is irrelevant, but he definitely looks like a steal and could easily be a long-term, above average starter.
- MLB Kiko Alonso (Philadelphia)
Last year: NA
When the Eagles traded LeSean McCoy to the Bills for Kiko Alonso, a lot of people criticized it, but I loved it. Not only did the trade free up the cap space to sign DeMarco Murray, but Alonso was also Pro Football Focus’ 9th ranked middle linebacker as a rookie in 2013, before missing all of 2014 with a torn ACL. At the end of the day, the final score of that trade was LeSean McCoy for DeMarco Murray and Kiko Alonso and, if you think about it that way, it looks like a much better trade for the Eagles. Alonso’s knees are a concern, as he tore his other ACL in college as well, and he’s technically only a one year wonder, but he’s only going into his age 25 season, he’s going to be 15 months removed from the ACL tear by week 1, and he should be good for the Eagles inside at middle linebacker this year.
- G David DeCastro (Pittsburgh)
Last year: 122
David DeCastro was a first round pick in 2012, but his career didn’t get off to a great start as he was limited to 138 snaps as a rookie in 2012 because of knee problems. However, he’s bounced back, as he’s made 31 starts in the past 2 seasons combined, grading out 14th in 2013 and 19th in 2014. The Steelers picked up his 5th year option for 2016 and they’re expected to try to sign him to a long-term extension over the next year or so.
- DE Greg Hardy (Dallas)
Last year: 46
In an effort to improve their defense, the Cowboys signed Greg Hardy from the Panthers as a free agent this off-season, even knowing about Hardy’s history of legal troubles. He was found guilty of domestic violence last off-season by a judge, though he remained in legal limbo because he was appealing the decision to a jury. After starting the opener last season, Hardy served a 15 game suspension imposed by the Panthers last off-season, in response to public outcry. Hardy got the charges dropped on a technicality this off-season, but was still subject to league discipline. He originally got 10 games, but got the suspension down to 4 games on appeal.
The Cowboys are obviously much happier with 4 games than 10 because they signed him with the intention of having him be the starting defensive end for most of the season. When on the field in recent years, he’s been fantastic, grading out 2nd among 4-3 defensive ends in 2013 and 6th in 2012. The Cowboys took a risk by signing him, beyond the obvious PR risk, because Hardy hasn’t played in basically a year and will miss even more time, but he’s only going into his age 27 season so he could easily still dominate when on the field.