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.
- RB DeMarco Murray (Philadelphia)
Last year: 198
I wrote in my Cowboys off-season preview that Murray was one of the top candidates to be overpaid this off-season and that he should come with a buyer beware label on his forehead, for a variety of reasons. For one, since 1988, only 4 of 26 running backs who led the league in carries surpassed their rushing yards total the following season. Those 26 backs averaged 365 carries per season, rushed for 1612 yards, and scored 14 touchdowns in the season they led the league in carries. The following season, they averaged 262 carries per season, rushed for 1053 yards, and scored 8 touchdowns. Murray already saw his YPC drop from 5.14 in the first 8 games of the season to 4.23 in the final 8. There’s a reason backs are rarely given more than 350 carries, as teams don’t want to ruin that player for the following season. The Cowboys knew Murray wasn’t coming back in 2015 though so they didn’t care. They reportedly didn’t come close to making a competitive offer for him this off-season.
Murray has an injury history dating back to his collegiate days too. He made it through all 16 games in 2014 (not without a broken hand), but he missed 11 games in first 3 seasons and fell to the 3rd round of the 2011 NFL Draft because of injury concerns. Even if Murray stays healthy in 2015, he’s highly unlikely to even come within 50 carries of his 2014 total, a problem as his 4.71 YPC in 2014 was good, but not outstanding or anything. He got to 1800+ yards on volume largely. He also was helped out drastically by the Cowboys offensive line, as the Cowboys were Pro Football Focus’ 2nd ranked team in run blocking grade. He was, in fact, overpaid on a 5-year, 40 million dollar deal by the Eagles this off-season.
- WR Emmanuel Sanders (Denver)
Last year: NA
Emmanuel Sanders graded out 8th overall among wide receivers on Pro Football Focus in 2014, including 3rd in pure pass catching grade, in a big-time breakout season. A mid-sized free agent signing that has paid big dividends, Sanders was sized to a 3-year, 15 million dollar deal last off-season after 4 nondescript seasons in Pittsburgh, after getting drafted in the 3rd round in 2010. In 2 years as a key contributor for the Steelers in 2012 and 2013, including a starting role in 2013, Sanders graded out very middle of the pack on Pro Football Focus, grading out 57th and 60th respectively among wide receivers, while averaging 1.48 and 1.34 yards per route run. He’s still a one year wonder, but he and Demaryius Thomas are arguably the best wide receiver duo in football.
- DE Cameron Heyward (Pittsburgh)
Last year: 169
Cameron Heyward, a 2011 1st round pick, is one of the few bright spots on Pittsburgh’s defense. Heyward has graded out above average in each of the last 3 seasons, including the last 2 as a starter, making 32 of 32 starts. He graded out 19th among 3-4 defensive ends on Pro Football Focus in 2013 and then had the best year of his career in 2014, grading out 6th at his position. The Steelers re-signed Heyward to a 6-year, 59.2 million dollar extension this off-season. He’s one player they can’t afford to lose.
- DT Johnathan Hankins (NY Giants)
Last year: NA
The Giants have long-term uncertainty about JPP and his injury hand at defensive end, but inside at defensive tackle, the Giants have another very talented defensive lineman, Johnathan Hankins. After flashing on 195 snaps in 2013 as a 2nd round rookie, Hankins got a chance to be the starter in 2014 and dominated, grading out as Pro Football Focus’ 7th ranked defensive tackle on 700 snaps. Though he’s 6-2 320, Hankins isn’t just a big run stuffer as he graded out well above average as both a run stopper and a pass rusher last season. Hankins should remain an every down player.
- S Reshad Jones (Miami)
Last year: NA
Reshad Jones played very well in 2014, grading out 3rd among safeties. He also graded out 3rd among safeties in 2012, but it’s hard to consider him one of the top safeties in the NFL because of his inconsistency. In 2013, between those two dominant seasons, he graded out 66th among 86 eligible safeties and he has graded out above average in just 3 of 5 seasons in the league since being drafted in the 5th round in 2010, including just 2 of 4 seasons as a starter. He overall averages out to a significantly above average starter and is the Dolphins’ best defensive back, but it’s hard to know what you’re getting from him.
- DE Malik Jackson (Denver)
Last year: 176
Malik Jackson, a 2012 5th round pick, has broken out over the past 2 seasons as a defensive end/defensive tackle hybrid at 6-5 284 and would seem to be a natural fit as a 3-4 defensive end. He was Pro Football Focus’ 12th ranked defensive tackle in 2013 and their 3rd ranked 4-3 defensive end in 2014. Only going into his age 25 season, Jackson should have an every down role as a 3-4 defensive end this season and could easily have the best season of his career in that role, set a career high in snaps (currently at 601), and break out as one of the best 5-technique defensive ends in the league, just in time for him to hit unrestricted free agency next off-season. The Broncos would be wise to try to lock him up now if they can.
- TE Travis Kelce (Kansas City)
Last year: NA
While Chief wide receivers struggled in 2014, not catching a touchdown, Kelce led the team in receiving, with 67 catches for 862 yards and 5 touchdowns. That’s even more impressive when you consider that he played most of last season on a snap count as he was returning from a brutal knee injury that required micro-fracture surgery. Kelce caught 67 of his 81 targets (82.7%) and his 2.13 yards per route run was 2nd in the NFL among tight ends behind Rob Gronkowski.
Also a strong blocker (1st among tight ends on Pro Football Focus in that aspect), Kelce was Pro Football Focus’ 4th ranked tight end overall last season. That was despite playing just 688 snaps, barely more than teammate Anthony Fasano (678 snaps), who graded out 61st out of 67 eligible tight ends, but kept seeing the field because of Kelce’s knee. Fasano is gone now, leaving just Demetrius Harris behind Kelce on the depth chart. Harris, a 2013 undrafted free agent, has played 70 snaps in 2 seasons in the league, leaving Kelce to be an every down tight end. He could easily top 1000 receiving yards, while providing strong run blocking to help out a poor offensive line. If he can stay healthy, he’ll draw some Gronk-lite comparisons.
- OT Jared Veldheer (Arizona)
Last year: 111
Jared Veldheer graded out as Pro Football Focus’ 9th ranked offensive tackle in the first year of a 5-year, 35 million dollar deal in 2014. He was one of several recent big investments by the Cardinals since new GM Steve Keim came in 3 off-seasons ago, in order to turn around a perennially poor offensive front and he looks like a steal thus far. He should be able to repeat that season in 2015, only going into his age 28 season. A 2010 3rd round pick, Veldheer graded out 16th, 15th, and 9th among offensive tackles in 2011, 2012, and 2014 respectively, with a 2013 season mostly lost to injury in between. Basically, whenever he’s been healthy, he’s been good and, aside from 2013, he’s never missed a game.
- G TJ Lang (Green Bay)
Last year: 184
Lang has had a very impressive career, and the 2009 4th round pick is only going into his age 28 season, so he is still in the prime of his career. He’s made 63 of 64 starts over the past 4 seasons, including 6 at right tackle. He’s struggled at right tackle, but he’s graded out above average at guard in all 4 seasons that he’s been the primary starter from 2011-2014, including 22nd in 2011, 15th in 2013, and 3rd last season.
- QB Andrew Luck (Indianapolis)
Last year: 145
The 1st overall pick in the 2012 NFL Draft, Andrew Luck certainly has gotten better every season, grading out 16th among quarterbacks on Pro Football Focus in 2012, 12th in 2013, and 9th in 2014, completing 61.7% of his passes for an average of 7.73 YPA, 40 touchdowns, and 16 interceptions last season. He set career highs in completion percentage, yards per attempt, and touchdowns with those numbers. He’s not quite a top level elite quarterback, but he’s very close and, only going into his age 26 season, he could certainly keep getting better. He’s signed for about 19.5 million total over the next 2 seasons, but he’s expected to get a long-term extension sometime in the next 12 months or so, ahead of his 2016 contract year, and will probably set an NFL record for average salary. Right now, Aaron Rodgers’ 22 million dollar annual salary is the record and Luck reportedly could get 25 million. It’s a lot, but the Colts don’t have another choice.
- DE Ezekiel Ansah (Detroit)
Last year: NA
Ansah was the 5th overall pick in the 2013 NFL Draft and has made 28 starts in 2 seasons in the league. He graded out slightly below average as a rookie, but broke out in his 2nd season in the league in 2014, finishing 5th among 4-3 defensive ends. The Lions are obviously hoping that he can, not only continue that strong play, but become even better in his 3rd season in the league in 2015. With so many losses along the Lions’ defensive line, he becomes even more important to the team.
- G Evan Mathis (Denver)
Last year: 7
The Broncos just signed Evan Mathis in August, after he was cut by the Eagles ahead of a non-guaranteed 5.5 million dollar salary for 2015, but he’s still one of the best guards in the NFL. Evan Mathis graded out #1 among guards in 2011, #1 in 2012, #1 in 2013, and then #2 in 2014, despite missing 7 games with injury. The Eagles seemed to want him on the team for 2015, keeping him into June, but eventually granted him his release after he demanded a raise. Even though he’s going into his age 34 season and coming off of an injury plagued season, he’s still been one of the best offensive linemen in the game when healthy over the past few years and he missed just 1 game from 2011-2013. He’s a big addition by the Broncos.
- WR TY Hilton (Indianapolis)
Last year: 120
Like his fellow draft classmate Andrew Luck, Hilton has improved in all 3 seasons he’s been in the league, leading to a 2014 season in which he caught 82 passes on 123 attempts (66.7%) for 1346 yards and 7 touchdowns on 572 routes run, an average of 2.35 yards per route run. He’s graded out 86th, 34th, and 10th in 2012, 2013, and 2014 respectively and should have another strong season this year, only his age 26 season. It’s definitely helped him to have played with Andrew Luck, but he’s a great receiver in his own right. The Colts gave him a 5-year, 65 million dollar extension this off-season, ahead of the final year of his rookie year.
- OLB Ryan Kerrigan (Washington)
Last year: NA
The Redskins let Brian Orakpo go as a free agent this off-season and he eventually signed in Tennessee for 32 million over 4 years. One of the major reasons why the Redskins were comfortable letting Orakpo go is Ryan Kerrigan, who has emerged as a strong edge rusher and 3-4 outside linebacker on the other side. Kerrigan will once again play every down in 2015 after playing 1000 snaps in 2014 (5th most at his position) and he was signed to a 5-year, 57.5 million dollar extension this off-season, ahead of his contract year, with money that the Redskins saved by letting Orakpo go. Younger than Orakpo (going into his age 27 season, as opposed to age 29 for Orakpo) with no games missed in 4 years in the NFL, Kerrigan, a 2011 1st round pick, has graded out 19th, 7th, 26th, and 5th among 3-4 outside linebackers from 2011-2014. They made the right decision.
- S Kam Chancellor (Seattle)
Last year: 71
Kam Chancellor was a 5th round pick in 2010 and took a year to break into the starting lineup, flashing on 138 snaps as a rookie and then making 61 of 64 in the 4 seasons since. He’s graded out 5th, 20th, 12th, and 20th respectively from 2011-2014. Because the Seahawks have so much talent in the secondary, particularly Thomas and Sherman, Chancellor often plays near the line of scrimmage, playing 81.3% of his snaps within 8 yards of the line of scrimmage in 2014, 2nd most often in the NFL among eligible safeties, a great role for the 6-3 232 pounder. Chancellor is currently holding out and is expected to miss regular season games in an effort to get a pay increase, owed just 16.775 million over the next 3 seasons. He’ll be missed until he returns.
- C Max Unger (New Orleans)
Last year: NA
The Saints traded Jimmy Graham and a 4th round pick to the Seahawks for Max Unger and a 1st round pick this off-season. It made a lot of sense. As good as Graham was last season (Pro Football Focus’ 11thranked tight end), the Saints gained valuable long-term financial flexibility by swapping the remainder of his contract (27 million over 3 years)to Seattle for the remainder of center Max Unger’s contract (9 million over 2 years). Unger isn’t as good as Graham, but he’s a very solid player in his own right and a much better value. On top of that, the Saints got Seattle’s first round pick (which eventually became linebacker Stephone Anthony) in exchange for their 4th round pick, which is obviously good.
Unger was Pro Football Focus’ 4th ranked center last season, despite playing just 385 snaps. No one played fewer snaps and graded out better at the position. He missed 10 games with injury last season and the Seahawks desperately missed him when he was out of the lineup, moving the chains at a 6.38% better rate in games he started. That can’t all be credited to him and that’s over just one season’s sample size, but it’s worth noting because Unger was fantastic on the field last season.
- OT Branden Albert (Miami)
Last year: NA
The Dolphins were dealt a huge blow in 2014 when Branden Albert tore his ACL. He’ll be 10 months removed from the injury by week 1, so his status for week 1 is not in doubt, but what is in doubt is whether or not he can return to form, going into his age 31 season, following a serious injury like that. When on the field, Albert is a solid offensive tackle, grading out above average in each of his last 5 seasons, including 18th among offensive tackles in 2011, 24th in 2012, 28th in 2013, and 8th in 2014. He was on his way to easily the best season of his career last season, grading out as Pro Football Focus’ 3rd ranked offensive tackle through week 9, and still finished the season with no one playing fewer snaps than him and grading out better at the position. However, he’s getting up there in age and has missed 14 games with injury over the past 3 seasons combined.
- TE Greg Olsen (Carolina)
Last year: 129
Greg Olsen is the saving grace of this receiving corps and their best offensive weapon. He finished 2nd among tight ends in receiving yards in 2014, only behind Rob Gronkowski, catching 84 passes for 1008 yards and 6 touchdowns. A strong blocker and all-around tight end as well, Olsen was Pro Football Focus’ 3rd ranked tight end last season. This is nothing too new for him (although that was a career best), as he’s graded out above average in 7 of 8 seasons he’s been in the league since being drafted in the 1st round in 2007, including above average as a pass catcher in all 8 seasons.
He’s not flashy, but he’s productive (3 straight seasons of 800+ receiving yards), he doesn’t have a weakness, and he’s a huge part of Carolina’s offense. He also hasn’t missed a game since his rookie year in 2007. He’s going into his age 30 season, but, coming off the best season of his career, he’s showing no signs of declining any time soon. The Panthers clearly trust him long-term, giving him a 3-year, 22.5 million dollar extension this off-season, ahead of a contract year where he was set to make just 5.5 million. He’s scheduled to make 28 million dollars total over the next 4 seasons. Other than him, the Panthers’ receivers are not a strong group at all though, which makes him all the more important.
- DT Brandon Williams (Baltimore)
Last year: NA
The Ravens will be counting on a pair of talented youngsters to play bigger roles this season to make up for the loss of Ngata and move this perennially dominant Ravens’ defense into the next generation. Those two players are Brandon Williams and Timmy Jernigan, particularly Williams. Williams actually played more snaps than Ngata last season (569 vs. 546). The big nose tackle probably won’t be able to play much more than 600 snaps maximum and he isn’t much of a pass rusher, but he graded out as Pro Football Focus’ 10th ranked defensive tackle last season, including 4th as a run stopper. The 2013 3rd round pick also flashed on 93 snaps as a rookie and has some young Haloti Ngata like abilities at 6-1 335, though he’s not quite as versatile.
- QB Peyton Manning (Denver)
Last year: 2
The Broncos finished last regular season #1 in the NFL in rate of moving the chains differential, as they had done the year before, when they ended up losing in the Super Bowl to Seattle. Like the previous season, the Broncos were unable to capitalize when they got to the playoffs, but, unlike the previous season, the Broncos didn’t even make the Super Bowl, or even win a game. The Broncos, after a first round bye, lost at home to the Colts 24-13.
What happened? Well, while they did rank #1 over the whole season, they played their worst football at the worst time. Of the 12 playoff teams, the Broncos ranked 9th in schedule adjusted rate of moving the chains differential in the final 4 weeks of the season. An injury to talented linebacker Brandon Marshall was part of it, but, undeniably, the biggest problem over the final 4 weeks of the season and into the playoff loss was quarterback Peyton Manning.
After completing 68.1% of his passes for an average of 8.05 YPA, 34 touchdowns, and 9 interceptions in the first 11 games of the season, Peyton Manning completed just 60.6% of his passes for an average of 7.54 YPA, 5 touchdowns, and 6 interceptions in the final 5 games of the season. Manning followed that up by completing 56.5% of his passes for an average of 4.59 YPA and a touchdown in the playoff loss. And that was despite having some fantastic supporting talent around him on offense.
His late season struggles caused him to finish the season only 10th among quarterbacks on Pro Football Focus, after never grading out worse than 5th since Pro Football Focus’ origin in 2007. His performance in the playoff loss ranked as Pro Football Focus’ 20th best quarterbacked game out of 22 eligible post-season games. A late season thigh injury seems like the obvious culprit to many people and he’s just 2 years removed from a record setting 2013 season where he completed 68.3% of his passes for 8.31 YPA, 55 touchdowns, and 10 interceptions. He also had similar numbers to those last season through the first 11 games. At first glance, he might look like a good bounce back candidate, but the thing that needs to be remembered is that he’s going into his age 39 season with a history of neck problems and considered retirement this off-season. He’s at the point where it’s impossible to trust him going forward, especially since he did show a steep decline in his abilities late last season.
Over the past 20 years, quarterbacks in their age 39 season complete 60.4% of his passes for an average of 6.60 YPA, 90 touchdowns, and 80 interceptions. That’s as opposed to 61.2% completion, a 6.92 YPA, 235 touchdowns, and 177 interceptions in age 38 seasons. Now, not all of the players in those statistical pools are as good as Peyton Manning, but you also need to be pretty good to be playing until you’re 38 or 39. Looking at the end of Brett Favre’s career shows the range of what we could see from Manning this season. In his age 39 season, he completed 65.7% of his passes for an average of 6.65 YPA, 22 touchdowns, and 22 interceptions. In his age 40 season, he completed 68.4% of his passes for an average of 7.91 YPA, 33 touchdowns, and 7 interceptions. In his age 41 season, he completed 60.6% of his passes for an average of 7.01 YPA, 11 touchdowns, and 19 interceptions. Any of those options is in play for Manning this season. It’s simply impossible to know which one or to trust him right now.
- DT Sharrif Floyd (Minnesota)
Last year: NA
Sharrif Floyd had a breakout year in 2014, in his first year in Mike Zimmer’s system. The 2013 1st round pick graded out below average on 472 snaps as a rookie, but he lived up to his billing and then some in 2014, grading out as Pro Football Focus’ 5thranked defensive tackle. The 6-3 305 pounder seems to be Mike Zimmer’s new Geno Atkins. He’s still a one year wonder, but he has a ton of talent and is in a great system for his abilities. Only going into his age 24 season, he could even be better in his 3rd year in the league in 2015. He should be more in the 700-800 snap range as an every down player.
- RB Adrian Peterson (Minnesota)
Last year: 41
Adrian Peterson missed 15 games last season with team suspension, after getting arrested for child abuse after week 1, but now returns. Peterson will be a big boost to this offense, but you shouldn’t expect him to be the same back who rushed for 2000+ yards in 2012. As good as he’s been throughout his 8-year career, he’s only rushed for 1400+ yards twice and never in back-to-back seasons. In 2013, following that 2000+ yard year, he rushed for 1266 yards and 10 touchdowns on 279 carries, an average of 4.54 yards per carry, good, but not incredible.
He barely played last season, rushing for 75 yards on 21 carries, and now he’s going into his age 30 season with 2054 career carries. He ranks 28th all-time in rushing yards with 10,190, but, of the top-25 all-time leading rushers who have played in the last decade and a half, the average one has his last 1000 yard season in his age 30 season at 2602 carrier carries. He could be fresh off of a season off, but he could just as easily be rusty. That being said, he should still be a big asset for them, as he ranked in the top-11 among running backs on Pro Football Focus in every season from 2010-2013, the only running back in the NFL who can say that.
- OLB Elvis Dumervil (Baltimore)
Last year: 87
Dumervil spent the early part of his career in Denver, but he wasn’t really used properly there, as he was an every down player. Dumervil had some great years rushing the passer, grading out 4th in pass rush grade among 4-3 defensive ends in 2007 and 4th in pass rush grade among 3-4 outside linebackers in 2009. However, he graded out below average against the run in every season in Denver, which caused him to grade out below average overall in 2008, 2011, and 2012 (he missed all of 2010 with injury) and led to the Broncos making him a cap casualty after the 2012 season.
In Baltimore, he’s only been a part-time player, playing primarily in obvious passing situations, which has maximized his talents. While the 5-11 250 pounder is really weak against the run, he’s a force off the edge in obvious passing situations. He graded out as Pro Football Focus’ 3rd ranked 3-4 outside linebacker in 2013 (1st in pass rush grade) and 6th in 2014 (2nd in pass rush grade). He’s getting up there, going into his age 31 season, but he should have enough strong year.
- CB Joe Haden (Cleveland)
Last year: 45
Joe Haden is one of the best cornerbacks in the NFL. The Browns signed him to a 5-year, 68 million dollar deal last off-season, making him the highest paid player on the team. Haden didn’t quite live up to that last season, grading out as Pro Football Focus’ 28th ranked cornerback, but he’s still a very valuable member of this secondary. Since being drafted 7th overall in 2010, Haden has graded out 6th, 10th, 20th, 17th, and 28th in all 5 seasons of his career respectively among cornerbacks on Pro Football Focus.
- S Jairus Byrd (New Orleans)
Last year: 24
The Saints had arguably the worst defense in the league last season, but the secondary should be better because Jairus Byrd will return after being limited to 272 snaps in 4 games by a torn meniscus last season. Even when healthy, he struggled last season thanks to a lingering back problem, following off-season back surgery. Prior to last season, he was arguably the best safety in the NFL, which is why the Saints signed him to a 6-year, 54 million dollar deal last off-season.
The 2009 2nd round pick graded out above average in each of his first 5 seasons in the league up until free agency last off-season, grading out 41st, 22nd, 3rd, 2nd, and 8th in 2009-2013 respectively. No other safety graded out in the top-8 in all three seasons from 2011-2013. Injuries are beginning to become a concern, going into his age 29 season, as he missed 5 games with a foot problem in 2013 before last year’s back problems and knee problems and he might miss a couple of games to start the season because of his knee, but, assuming he’s healthy, his re-addition should be a big boost to this team.