This 8-part series counts down the top-200 players in the NFL. 200 might sounds like a lot, but with 53 players on 32 teams’ rosters, that’s 1696 players. Count guys on the practice squad, guys on the PUP or the IR, and guys who are free agents, but still on teams’ radar. That’s probably 2000 players. These guys are the top 10%. Positional value doesn’t matter because if it did, this list would be too quarterback heavy.
- WR Randall Cobb (Green Bay)
Last year: 197
The Packers re-signed Randall Cobb ahead of free agency this off-season, settling on a 4-year, 40 million dollar deal with the wide receiver, after a long negotiation period that seemed like it would end with Cobb taking more money elsewhere. The Packers upped their offer from 9 million annually to 10 million annually at the last second and Cobb took less money to stay in Green Bay, passing on a 5-year, 55 million dollar deal from the Oakland Raiders. It’s the kind of compromise where both sides win.
In Oakland, Cobb would have likely struggled to put up numbers on a losing team and could have easily been cut midway through his contract for not putting up numbers comparable to his large salary. In Green Bay, he’s much more likely to be kept for the duration of the contract and he’ll hit free agency again in 4 years going into his age 29 season with a chance at another big payday. Even though he took less money to return to Green Bay, this deal likely maximizes his career earnings potential. Because of that and the obvious increased chance of getting a ring in Green Bay, Cobb was the real winner, but the Packers have to be pretty happy with the deal too.
The Packers didn’t get Cobb quite as cheaply as they would have liked, but they still got a discount over what he would have gotten on the open market and a solid value. While it’s not hard to get good production out of receivers when you have Aaron Rodgers under center, Cobb is still a very valuable part of this offense. Cobb didn’t see a ton of playing time as a 2nd round rookie in 2011 and he missed 10 games with a broken leg in 2013. However, in his other two seasons, he put up 80/954/8 (in 2012) and then 91/1287/12 (in 2014). Cobb was Pro Football Focus’ 11th ranked wide receiver in 2012 and then 9th in 2014. Other than the leg injury, he doesn’t have much of an injury history and he’s only going into his age 25 season so he could keep getting better.
- C John Sullivan (Minnesota)
Last year: 33
The only Viking offensive lineman who started all 16 games in 2014 and played well was center John Sullivan, who graded out 12th among centers in 2014. He’s been better in the past though and, only going into his age 30 season, I think he’s still one of the better centers in the NFL. The 2008 6th round pick was a late bloomer, not really coming around until his 4th season in the league in 2011, but he graded out 3rd that year, 1st in 2012, and 3rd in 2013, meaning last season was actually a down season for him. He’s made 63 out of 64 starts over the past 4 seasons and should remain a valuable asset in the middle of their offensive line when healthy, but he will miss at least the first 8 weeks of the season with injury, a huge blow to the Vikings.
- OLB Pernell McPhee (Chicago)
Last year: NA
McPhee was signed as a free agent by the Bears this off-season. He graded out as Pro Football Focus’ #2 ranked 3-4 outside linebacker in 2014 despite playing just 540 snaps. He’s not a one year wonder as that type of player either as he graded out as Pro Football Focus’ 3rd ranked defensive tackle as a 5th round rookie in 2011 on just 348 snaps and has graded out above average in all 4 seasons he’s been in the league. The 6-3 278 pounder is supremely versatile with experience as a 3-4 outside linebacker, a 4-3 defensive end, a 3-4 defensive end, and a 4-3 defensive tackle. He’s never played more than 540 snaps in a season, so he’s still unproven as a full-time starter, and he’s still unproven outside of Baltimore, where they have such great supporting talent defensively. However, he’s also only going into his age 27 season and could break out as one of the better front 7 players in the game if he’s given a bigger role. He was a great add on a 5-year, 40 million dollar deal.
- QB Philip Rivers (San Diego)
Last year: 64
Rivers should be able to put up another strong season in 2015. He’s going into his age 34 season, but plenty of good quarterbacks have had success into the mid-30s. Rivers career looked like it was on the decline in 2012, when he completed 64.1% of his passes for a career worst average of 6.84 YPA, 26 touchdowns, and 15 interceptions. Rivers graded out 27th among quarterbacks on Pro Football Focus that season, after grading out in the top-6 in every season from 2008-2011.
However, Rivers has turned it around over the past 2 seasons, grading out 3rd in 2013 and 7th in 2014, as new Head Coach Mike McCoy has worked wonders with Rivers, following the dismissal of long-time head coach Norv Turner. He’s graded out below average on Pro Football Focus once in their 8-year history and he’s completed 64.7% of his passes for an average of 7.84 YPA, 252 touchdowns, and 122 interceptions in his career. After talk this off-season that he could be traded in order to acquire Marcus Mariota, the Chargers ultimately ended up extending Philip Rivers for 83.25 million over 4 years this off-season. He’s still one of the best quarterbacks in the NFL and keeping him was definitely the right short-term move.
- C Rodney Hudson (Oakland)
Last year: NA
A 2011 2nd round pick, Rodney Hudson flashed on 136 snaps in various positions as a 2nd round rookie in 2011, before moving to center full-time in 2012. However, Hudson played just 3 games that year before going down for the season, though he showed well when healthy. Since then, he’s made all 32 starts over the past 2 seasons, grading out 17th among centers in 2013 and 3rd in 2014. He’s a solid player and one of the better centers in the game, though still someone I would rank behind the likes of Nick Mangold, Jason Kelce, Alex Mack, and possibly Ryan Kalil and Max Unger.
- WR Mike Evans (Tampa Bay)
Last year: NA
Jameis Winston walks into a pretty good situation as far as #1 picks go. Most #1 pick quarterbacks walk into horrible situations and that’s true for Winston in a lot of areas, but he has a great wide receiver duo to work with. Mike Evans and Vincent Jackson were one of 4 wide receiver duos last season to each have a 1000+ yard season (Calvin Johnson/Golden Tate, Demaryius Thomas/Emmanuel Sanders, and Jordy Nelson/Randall Cobb). While those other 3 duos all had good quarterback play (Matt Stafford, Peyton Manning, and Aaron Rodgers), Evans and Jackson had abysmal quarterback play. Both players could be even more productive this season with a competent quarterback under center.
Evans was the better of the two last season and figures to see the bigger uptick in production in 2015. It wasn’t just that Evans had more yards than Jackson last season (1051 to 1002), he also graded out 13thamong wide receivers and caught 58.6% of his targets, while Jackson graded out 32nd and caught 50.7% of his targets. Evans is also younger and has much more upside, going into his 2nd year in the league, only his age 22 season. The 7th overall pick in the 2014 NFL Draft had a dominant rookie year and rookie wide receivers aren’t really supposed to do that, even the really good ones. Even in the golden era of passing offenses in the past 10 years, the average first round rookie wideout has averaged just 48 catches for 703 yards and 4 touchdowns. Evans has as much upside as any receiver not named Odell Beckham going into the future.
- CB Desmond Trufant (Atlanta)
Last year: 113
Desmond Trufant, a 2013 1st round pick, is one of the most underrated cornerbacks in the NFL. Trufant has graded out 7th and 6th among cornerbacks in 2013 and 2014 respectively to start his career and should continue being dominant, going into his age 24 season in 2015. He’s one of the best cornerbacks in the whole league. Unfortunately, he has no help around him on Atlanta’s defense.
- WR Dez Bryant (Dallas)
Last year: 101
Dez Bryant has always been productive, with 381 career catches for 5424 yards and 56 touchdowns in 75 career games in 5 seasons, since being drafted in the first round in 2010. He’s been especially good over the past 3 seasons, as he’s had 3 straight seasons of at least 80 catches for 1200 yards and 12 touchdowns. He hasn’t missed a game in those 3 seasons and has caught 273 passes for 3935 yards and 41 touchdowns in that time period, which are video game numbers. However, 2014 was easily his best season. After grading out 39th among wide receivers on Pro Football Focus in 2010, 10th in 2011, 52nd in 2012, and 27th in 2013, Bryant graded out 2nd in 2014. Drops have been a serious issue for him in the past and he’s always been a target monster so he hasn’t always been the most efficient player, but he’s still one of the best wide receivers in the game.
- MLB NaVorro Bowman (San Francisco)
Last year: 37
NaVorro Bowman returns at middle linebacker for the 49ers, after missing all of last season with multiple ligament tears in his knee. There’s concern about whether or not he’ll return to form, but he’s only going into his age 27 season and he’ll be about 19 months removed from the devastating injury by week 1. Even if he’s less than 100% in his first year back, he’ll still be a huge asset to them. A 2010 3rd round pick, Bowman ranked 1st, 6th, and 1st among middle linebackers in 2011, 2012, and 2013.
- G Zach Martin (Dallas)
Last year: NA
When the Cowboys drafted Zach Martin in the 1st round in 2014, it was the 3rd time the Cowboys had used a 1st round pick on an offensive lineman in 3 years, as they also drafted Tyron Smith in the 1st round in 2011 and Travis Frederick in the 1st round in 2013. Like the other two, Martin was a great pick and a big part of the reason why the Cowboys have arguably the best offensive line in football. A converted collegiate tackle, Martin was Pro Football Focus’ 6th ranked guard in 16 starts at right guard as a rookie.
- DE Fletcher Cox (Philadelphia)
Last year: NA
Cox, a 2012 1st round pick, has blossomed into one of the best 3-4 defensive ends in the league, grading out 19th among defensive tackles as a rookie, 13th among 3-4 defensive ends in 2013, and then 5th among 3-4 defensive ends in 2014. His career trajectory is very impressive and, only going into his age 25 season, Cox could continue to get better. The Eagles are expected to sign him to a long-term extension over the next calendar year.
- S Glover Quin (Detroit)
Last year: 123
Glover Quin is probably the Lions’ best defensive back. Quin, a 2009 4th round pick, has graded out above average in each of the last 5 seasons, 1 at cornerback (2010), and the last 4 at safety. He’s been especially good since signing a 5-year, 23.5 million dollar deal with the Lions two off-seasons ago, grading out 10th and 3rd respectively among safeties in those 2 seasons and making all 32 starts. He hasn’t missed a game since his rookie year. He’s a one year wonder in terms of being the type of dominant safety he was last season, but he’s still one of the best players on the Lions’ defense.
- TE Jimmy Graham (Seattle)
Last year: 17
Seahawks had problems in the receiving corps last season. In order to remedy that, they made a shocking trade with the cap strapped Saints for Jimmy Graham, who the Saints brought back on a 4-year, 40 million dollar deal last off-season. There’s no doubt that Graham will instantly be their best receiver and, owed just 27 million over the next 3 years, the Seahawks are getting a good value. However, the price was steep as the Seahawks swapped their first round pick to the Saints for a fourth rounder and also had to give up center Max Unger, who was their best offensive lineman last season and very reasonable paid, making just 9 million combined over the next 2 seasons. On top of that, while Graham’s contract is a good value, it’s another big contract for a team that has a lot of highly paid talent and soon-to-be highly paid talented to figure out how to keep under the cap long-term.
In the short term, there’s no doubt Graham makes them a better team though. Graham has caught 386 passes for 4752 yards and 51 touchdowns on 576 targets (67.0%) and 2281 routes run (2.08 yards per route run) in his career, the 2nd most yards per route run by a tight end only behind Rob Gronkowski over the past 5 years. He’s also graded out 7th, 15th, 4th, and 11th among tight ends in 2011, 2012, 2013, and 2014 respectively. He might not post the same composite numbers this year that he’s had over the past 4 years in New Orleans, when he’s averaged 89 catches for 1099 yards and 12 touchdowns, because the Seahawks are not nearly as pass heavy as the Saints and have a slightly worse passing quarterback, but he could still be Seattle’s first 900+ yard receiver since TJ Houshmanzadeh in 2009 and he’ll definitely make this offense better. Graham isn’t seen as an ideal fit in Seattle because he’s not seen as a great run blocker, but the big 6-6 259 pounder has graded out above average as a run blocker in 4 of 5 seasons in the league, so I’m not worried about that.
- DT Geno Atkins (Cincinnati)
Last year: 27
Atkins didn’t miss any time with injuries last year, playing all 16 games, but he tore his ACL in 2013 and he really wasn’t the same player upon his return, grading out 20th among defensive tackles in 2014. That’s pretty good, but the Bengals need Atkins to become the dominant player he was before the injury. A 2010 4th round pick, Atkins graded out 7th among defensive tackles as a rotational player as a rookie and then graded out #1 in both 2011 and 2012 as a starter. There was a time when he looked like arguably the most dominant defensive player in the game other than JJ Watt. In 2013, before the injury, he looked on his way to a similarly dominant year, grading out 4th at his position through week 8 before tearing his ACL week 9. He’ll be about 22 months removed from the injury by week 1 and, only going into his age 27 season, there’s a good chance he regains his prior form, or at least has a better year than 2013. That’ll be a big boost for the Bengals’ defense.
- DE Muhammad Wilkerson (NY Jets)
Last year: 78
Muhammad Wilkerson, a 2011 1st round pick, struggled as a rookie, but has graded out 2nd, 15th, and 3rd among 3-4 defensive ends on Pro Football Focus in 2012, 2013, and 2014 respectively. He heads into the contract year of his rookie deal in 2015 and is set to make a boatload from someone in the next calendar year and, with the selection of defensive end Leonard Williams 6th overall in the 2015 NFL Draft, it doesn’t seem like that someone will be the Jets. The Jets would have been better off giving him a large extension this off-season and using the 6th overall pick to grab help somewhere else on the field, like taking edge rusher Vic Beasley, who went 8th to Atlanta. I think that plan would have worked better in the short-term and the long-term. The Williams selection only worked out in the short-term because Sheldon Richardson did a bunch of stupid things and got himself suspended.
- QB Tom Brady (New England)
Last year: 58
In the long-term, the debate over DeflateGate will be a legacy one, about whether or not this and Spygate lessen Brady’s legacy. I don’t believe it does. Taking some air out of the ball and being able to watch recorded public practices certainly doesn’t hurt a player’s ability to perform, but he’s hardly the only player to bend the rules, as evidenced by those polls and as several others have admitted this off-season, including Hall of Famer Jerry Rice, and if you think those are the reasons why Brady has been successful in his career, you don’t understand the game.
If Brady struggles by his standards on the field this season, it won’t be because the ball now has the minimum amount of air in it, instead of slightly less than the minimum amount. It’ll be because he’s going into his age 38 season. In 7 healthy seasons (excluding 2008) since Pro Football Focus’ start in 2007, Brady has graded out 2nd (2007), 11th (2009), 8th (2010), 3rd (2011), 2nd (2012), 6th (2013), and 4th (2014). Brady looked to be on the slight decline in 2013 and to start 2014, but turned it around in a big way mid-season last season, en route to his 4th Super Bowl.
- WR AJ Green (Cincinnati)
Last year: 95
AJ Green is the Bengals’ best wide receiver and, while he didn’t miss the whole season like Tyler Eifert and Marvin Jones, he too missed time with injury. While he technically only missed 3 regular season games, he missed the majority of two other games with injury and he was severely missed in the playoff loss to Indianapolis. In that loss, the only players to catch a pass were running backs Giovani Bernard (8/46) and Rex Burkhead (3/34), fullback Ryan Hewitt (3/37), reserve tight end Kevin Brock (1/7), and wide receiver Mohamed Sanu (3/31).
When on the field, Green was once again a force. He was Pro Football Focus’ 15th ranked wide receiver on 666 snaps, with no one playing fewer snaps and grading out better. He caught 69 of 109 targets (63.3%) for 1041 yards and 6 touchdowns on 352 routes run (a league leading average of 2.96 yards per route run). This is nothing new for him as Green graded out 8th among wide receivers in 2012 and 17th in 2013. In 4 seasons on the league, the 2011 4th overall pick has caught 329 passes for 4874 yards and 35 touchdowns in 60 games. Having him healthy for a full season, along with Eifert and Jones, would do wonders for a receiving corps that was running on fumes by playoff time last season.
- CB Brandon Flowers (San Diego)
Last year: NA
The Chargers signed Brandon Flowers to a one-year, prove it deal last off-season, after Flowers was cut by the Chiefs, following a 2013 season where he was Pro Football Focus’ 85th ranked cornerback out of 110 eligible. That risk paid off big time, as Flowers finished the season 15th among cornerbacks, giving them a much needed #1 cornerback. They had to pay more to keep him the 2nd time around, giving him a 4-year, 36 million dollar deal this off-season, but it was still a good contract.
Aside from 2013, Flowers has been one of the best cornerbacks in football over the last 6 years. From 2009-2012, Flowers graded out in the top-9 among cornerbacks on Pro Football Focus in all 4 seasons, the only cornerback in the NFL who could say that. The 5-10 189 pounder doesn’t fit every scheme and he was a horrible fit for Bob Sutton’s man press scheme in Kansas City in 2013, but San Diego clearly knows how to use him and he’s one of the best cornerbacks in the NFL when used properly. He’s only going into his age 29 season, so he should remain a big asset for the Chargers in the secondary this season.
- TE Jason Witten (Dallas)
Last year: 36
Jason Witten is Mr. Consistency. The 12-year veteran hasn’t missed a game since his rookie year in 2003. He’s caught between 64 and 110 passes, between 1 and 9 touchdowns, and totaled between 703 and 1145 yards in each of the last 11 seasons. He’s graded out above average in all 8 seasons of Pro Football Focus’ history, finishing 3rd, 4th, 1st, 1st, 9th, 3rd, 3rd, and 2nd from 2007-2014 respectively. The only issue is he’s going into his age 33 season so he’s going to start to decline at some point, but he hasn’t showed it yet, especially not with his 2nd place rank among tight ends last season. The likely future Hall of Famer is both a fantastic pass catcher and a tough run blocker.
- C Alex Mack (Cleveland)
Last year: 29
Alex Mack returns after missing 11 games last season. The 2009 1st round pick had made 85 straight starts at center to begin his career before going down with that broken leg last season, so he should be able to bounce back. Mack graded out in the top-11 among centers in each of his first 5 seasons in the league, one of two centers to grade out that well in every season from that time period (2009-2013), with the other being Houston’s Chris Myers. Through the first 5 weeks of the season last year, Mack was 4th among centers before the injury. He should be able to pick up right where he left off in 2015.
It’s worth noting that the Browns moved the chains at a 76.83% rate in games that Mack started, as opposed to 62.34% in their other games. It’s unfair to give Mack all that credit and suggest that Mack was the missing piece to a strong offense. The Browns also didn’t have terrible offensive injury luck in general last season (ranking 16th in offensive adjusted games lost) so I don’t think it’s quite accurate to suggest that the Browns are going to have significantly better offensive health in 2015 and that alone will get their offense out of the cellar, but Mack’s return is definitely welcome.
- OT Tyron Smith (Dallas)
Last year: 59
Tyron Smith went 9th overall in 2011. The USC product has made 63 of 64 starts in 4 years in the league and is only going into his age 25 season. He’s graded out 3rd, 41st, 7th, and 6th in 2011-2014 respectively. One of the best offensive tackles in football, the Cowboys locked Smith up on a 8 year, 97.6 million dollar extension, with 22.118 million guaranteed, last off-season. He’s a big part of a Dallas offensive line that is arguably the best in the NFL.
- DE Mike Daniels (Green Bay)
Last year: 117
Mike Daniels was drafted in the 4th round in 2012 and, after 231 underwhelming snaps as a rookie, He has blossomed into a strong interior defensive lineman, with upside only going into his age 26 season. Daniels graded out 6th among 3-4 defensive ends in 2013 and followed that up by grading out 8th at the positon in 2014. The 6-0 294 pounder is a better pass rusher than run stopper, but is far from a liability in either area. Going into the final year of his rookie deal in 2015, Daniels would stand to make a lot of money next off-season if he can continue his strong play. He’s the only bright spot on a weak defensive line and one of the few bright spots on the Packers’ weak defense.
- G Joel Bitonio (Cleveland)
Last year: NA
Bitinio had a fantastic rookie year as a 2014 2nd round pick, grading out as Pro Football Focus’ 5th ranked guard. He’s obviously still a one year wonder as he’s only played one year in the league and the 2nd rounder doesn’t have a great, high ceiling or anything, but he should once again have a strong year at left guard.
- OT Trent Williams (Washington)
Last year: 22
Trent WIlliams didn’t grade out #1 among offensive tackles again in 2014 like he did in 2013, but very few players are able to repeat that kind of season. Williams still graded out 18th at his position, despite dealing with some nagging injuries in the 2nd half of the season, making it 3 straight years that he’s graded out top-18 at his position. Only Joe Thomas, Andrew Whitworth, and Joe Staley can also say that. Only going into his age 27 season, Williams should be dominant once again in 2015. The Redskins hope to lock him up long-term ahead next off-season, when he’ll hit free agency.
- QB Ben Roethlisberger (Pittsburgh)
Last year: 174
Ben Roethlisberger led the way at quarterback on the Steelers 3rd ranked offense (in rate of moving the chains), completing 67.1% of his passes (a career high) for an average of 8.15 YPA, 32 touchdowns, and 9 interceptions. That led to a quarterback rating of 103.3, 3rd in the NFL and the 2nd best of Roethlisberger’s career. Since 2007, the first year in Pro Football Focus’ history, he’s made 118 starts and ranked 4th, 26th, 6th, 6th, 7th, 7th, 11th, and 3rd in those 8 seasons respectively, leading up to last season’s career best. He joins Tom Brady, Drew Brees, and Aaron Rodgers as the only quarterbacks to rank in the top-11 in each of the past 6 seasons.
In 159 career games, he’s completed 63.7% of his passes for an average of 7.88 YPA, 251 touchdowns, and 131 interceptions. A 2004 1st round pick, Roethlisberger is already going into his age 34 season, but plenty of good quarterbacks have continued that success into their mid-30s. The Steelers are betting on that, locking up their franchise quarterback for another 5 years and 99 million this off-season, ahead of his contract year.