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.
- C Travis Frederick (Dallas)
Last year: 195
Travis Frederick is one of 3 offensive linemen that the Cowboys have taken in the first round since 2011, left tackle Tyron Smith in 2011, the center Frederick in 2013, and right guard Zack Martin in 2014. Like the other two, Frederick was a great pick and a big part of the reason why the Cowboys have arguably the best offensive line in football. He graded out 8th among centers as a rookie in 2013 and then 2nd last season, while making all 32 starts. He’s arguably the best of the trio.
- OLB Khalil Mack (Oakland)
Last year: NA
Khalil Mack was the 5th overall pick in 2014 and is also someone I argued should have been Defensive Rookie of the Year. Mack was technically a 4-3 outside linebacker last season, ranking #1 at his position, but he did his most important work rushing the passer off the edge of the defensive line in sub packages, playing the Von Miller role. Interestingly enough, Miller ranked #1 among 4-3 outside linebackers, one spot ahead of Von Miller, who had his 3-year reign as the top 4-3 outside linebacker snapped by the rookie Mack last season, a reign that had dated back to Miller’s rookie year in 2011. If Mack keeps this up, the hybrid outside linebacker/defensive end role in a 4-3 might have to be renamed the Khalil Mack role, rather than the Von Miller role, especially with Miller switching to 3-4 outside linebacker in Denver’s new defense. Along with fellow rookie, defensive tackle Aaron Donald, Mack was the first rookie to grade out #1 at his position on either side of the ball since Miller did so in 2011.
Mack only had 4 sacks on the season, but his pass rush numbers were better than his sack totals as he also managed 10 hits and 40 hurries. That still means his pass rush productivity was significantly worse than Miller’s, as Miller had 15 sacks, 11 hits, and 47 hurries, giving him a pass rush productivity of 11.8, while Mack was at 9.1. However, Miller had the luxury of playing with a lot of leads on a Peyton Manning quarterbacked team, giving him more easy pass rush situations. Mack also was significantly better than Miller as a run stopper.
Besides, any time you’re the best player on a defense that’s competent (16th in rate of moving the chains allowed), despite your only good teammate being Justin Tuck (one of two Oakland defenders to play more than 400 snaps and grade out above average), you’re doing something right. Mack should once again have a strong season in his 2nd season in the league, especially now that Jack Del Rio, Miller’s defensive coordinator in Denver from 2011-2013, is the head coach. He might not be quite as good, but it’s clear he’s one of the top few defensive players in the game. It’ll be up to the rest of the defense to improve around him.
- DT Aaron Donald (St. Louis)
Last year: NA
Now we go from my pick for Defensive Rookie of the Year (Mack) to the actual Defensive Rookie of the Year (Donald). I love Mack and Donald is only slightly behind him in my book. Like Mack, he ranked #1 at his position on Pro Football Focus, doing so at defensive tackle. Reminiscent of a pre-injury Geno Atkins, Donald dropped to the 14th overall pick only because of his height at 6-1 288. That hasn’t been an issue. He’s got a great future.
- S Devin McCourty (New England)
Last year: 35
The Patriots suffered a bunch of losses in the secondary this off-season, but they were able to retail safety Devin McCourty. McCourty was brought back on a 5-year, 47.5 million dollar deal this off-season. That is the 2nd highest average annual salary in the league for a safety, but he was well worth it. McCourty started his career as a cornerback, grading above average in his first 3 years in the league at that position, including 7th among cornerbacks on Pro Football Focus in 2010 and 8th in 2012 on just 534 snaps.
McCourty played such few snaps at cornerback in 2012 because he moved to safety mid-season, finishing the season 14th among safeties on 564 snaps. His composite grade across both positions would have been 5th among cornerbacks and 4th among safeties. He then followed that up by grading out 1st among safeties in 2013 and 8th in 2014. There’s been some talk that McCourty could be moving back to cornerback this season, with so many losses at the position. That hasn’t been substantiated by anything yet, but it is the Patriots so you never know. I don’t expect him to move back full-time to cornerback, but it would make sense for the Patriots to have him play on the slot in sub packages, because the Patriots’ safety depth is so much better than their cornerback depth, meaning they are much better equipped to play with 3 safeties on the field in sub packages than the traditional 3 cornerbacks.
- QB Drew Brees (New Orleans)
Last year: 20
Many see Drew Brees as a declining quarterback, following a 2014 season in which the Saints, with high expectations coming into the season, finished 7-9 and out of the playoffs. However, that’s putting too much value in team wins as an individual quarterback statistic. It’s still a team game and the Saints had the worst defense in the NFL last season, allowing opponents to move the chains at a 76.68% rate. The Saints were also better their record, finishing 11th in rate of moving the chains differential, as their offense finished 2nd in the NFL in rate of moving the chains (only behind Green Bay), moving them at a 79.14% rate. The Saints were just kept down by the usual fluky things that common fans put too much stock into that tend to be very inconsistent on a year-to-year or week-to-week basis, turnover margin (-13), return touchdown margin (-4), fumble recovery rate (37.84%), and record in games decided by a touchdown or less (3-5).
In reality, Brees was the Saints’ best player last season and the biggest reason they had any sort of success, leading a dominant offense. Brees completed 69.2% of his passes for an average of 7.51 YPA, 33 touchdowns, and 17 interceptions and ranked 2nd among quarterbacks on Pro Football Focus, only behind MVP Aaron Rodgers. That’s very much in line with what we’ve come to expect from Brees and doesn’t suggest any sort of decline has happened yet. He’s graded out 3rd, 7th, 3rd, 4th, 1st, 4th, 2nd, and 2ndrespectively from 2007-2014 in the 8 years of Pro Football Focus’ history and has completed 67.8% of his passes for an average of 7.71 YPA, 290 touchdowns, and 130 interceptions over that time period.
He’s the only quarterback in the NFL to grade out in the top-4 in each of the last 6 seasons and the top-7 in each of the last 8 seasons. There’s an argument to be made that he’s still the 2nd best quarterback in the NFL. All this isn’t to say that there isn’t some concern Brees that will decline in the future, as he enters his age 36 season, but the common narrative that this decline has already started isn’t based in any sort of fact and we’ve seen plenty of top level quarterbacks still have success into their mid-30s in recent years (Brett Favre, Peyton Manning, Tom Brady, etc.). I’m still very high on Brees.
- WR Julio Jones (Atlanta)
Last year: 38
Easily the most helpful offensive player for Matt Ryan over the past few seasons has been wide receiver Julio Jones, who is arguably the Falcons’ best player. Jones only played in 5 games with injury in 2013, but caught 41 of 57 targets (71.9%) for 580 yards and 2 touchdowns on 212 routes run, an average of 2.74 yards per route run, best in the NFL. Through the first 5 weeks of the season, before going down with a season ending foot injury, he was Pro Football Focus’ 4th ranked wide receiver.
Jones picked up right where he left off in 2014, grading out 6th among wide receivers and catching 104 passes on 156 attempts (66.7%) for 1593 yards and 6 touchdowns on 585 routes run, an average of 2.72 yards per route run, 5th in the NFL. Jones enters the contract year of his rookie deal, his age 26 season, with 278 catches for 4330 yards and 26 touchdowns in 49 career games, coming off of 3 straight strong seasons (15th among wide receivers in 2012 as well). The only issue with him is injuries, as he’s missed 15 games with injury in 4 seasons and has issues with his foot dating back to his collegiate days at the University of Alabama. The Falcons don’t seem concerned, giving their best playmaker a 5-year, 71.25 million dollar extension ahead of his contract year this off-season.
- MLB Dont’a Hightower (New England)
Last year: NA
Dont’a Hightower graded out 2nd among middle linebackers on Pro Football Focus in 2014 and he seems like a budding superstar. Hightower also helped with pass rush, adding 8 sacks, 9 hits, and 17 hurries on just 156 blitzes. The 2012 1st round pick graded out 8th and 12th among 4-3 outside linebackers in 2012 and 2013 respectively and then dominated upon moving back to his natural, collegiate position of middle linebacker in 2014. Only going into his age 25 season, Hightower should continue this play into 2015 and beyond and is one of the best middle linebackers in the game.
- OT Jason Peters (Philadelphia)
Last year: 49
Left tackle Jason Peters is also getting up there in age, going into his age 33 season, but he’s never graded out below average in Pro Football Focus’ 8 year history and he’s arguably played the best football of his career over the past few seasons. With the exception of a 2012 season lost to a torn Achilles, Peters has graded out in the top-4 among offensive tackles in each of the last 4 seasons, including #1 in 2011 and #1 last season. His age is a concern, but he should have at least two more good seasons left in the tank.
- CB Vontae Davis (Indianapolis)
Last year: 74
Cornerback Vontae Davis was the Colts’ 2nd most important player last season, behind Andrew Luck and ahead of TY Hilton. Davis was drafted in the first round by the Dolphins in 2009, but, when Joe Philbin’s coaching staff came in before the 2012 season, they felt he was out of shape, benched him, and put him on the trade block. Even though Davis had graded out above average in each of his first 3 seasons in the league (29th, 13th, and 39th) and even though he was still very young (only going into his age 24 season in 2012), they shipped him to the Colts for a 2nd and a 6th round pick before the 2012 season.
It looked like the Dolphins had won the trade at first, as Davis graded out below average in his first season in Indianapolis and missed 6 games with injury, which seemed to give some truth to the accusations that he was out of shape. However, Davis has developed into one of the top few cornerbacks in the NFL over the past 2 seasons, grading out 4th among cornerbacks in 2013 and 2nd among cornerbacks in 2014. He joins Darrelle Revis as one of two cornerbacks to grade out in the top-4 in each of those 2 seasons.
The Colts signed him to a 4-year, 36 million dollar deal last off-season, risky considering his history of injuries (10 games missed from 2011-2012) and inconsistency, but now that deal looks like a steal after he backed up an incredible 2013 season by doing it again in 2014. He heads into his age 27 season having graded out above average in 5 of 6 seasons in the league and as one of the best defensive players in the game, living up to his first round talent and then some. Still in the prime of his career, I expect nothing less than another dominant season from him again in 2015.
- DT Marcell Dareus (Buffalo)
Last year: 67
Dareus has lived up to expectations since going 3rd overall in the 2011 NFL Draft, grading out above average in all 4 seasons, 15th among defensive tackles on Pro Football Focus in 2011, 14th in 2012, 6th in 2013, and a career best 4th in 2014. Only going into his age 26 season in 2015, Dareus should once again have a very dominant season. The 6-3 319 pounder is a rare type of defensive linemen who can play nose tackle in a 3-4 in base packages, but also can rush the passer from the interior in sub packages in any scheme. The only concern with him is that he’s had some off-the-field issues and he’ll miss week 1 of the season with a suspension, which will really hurt them in that game. However, it doesn’t seem like that has affected the team’s opinion of him, as they gave him a deal worth 95.1 million dollars over 6 years with a record (for a non-quarterback) 60 million guaranteed at the end of the off-season.
- RB Jamaal Charles (Kansas City)
Last year: 23
The Chiefs’ strong running game was a huge part of why they were able to have some offensive success last season. The Chiefs averaged 4.57 yards per carry last season on 420 carries, 5th in the NFL, despite an offensive line that ranked 19th on Pro Football Focus in run blocking grade. That was largely as a result of Jamaal Charles, who averaged 5.01 yards per carry and graded out as Pro Football Focus’ 5th ranked running back in rushing grade.
Charles did that despite dealing with a variety of nagging injuries. Those injuries only caused him to miss 1 game, but that not only limited his effectiveness running the football, but also limited him to just 206 carries, fewest in a non-injury shortened season since 2009. Backup running back Knile Davis, a 2013 3rd round pick, saw 134 carries and averaged just 3.46 yards per carry, grading out worst at his position on Pro Football Focus. Charles being healthier and being back in that 250+ carry range for the Chiefs will be very helpful this season.
Charles’ career 5.49 yard per carry average is best all time by a running back and he also has 262 catches in 95 career games as well. Excluding an injury shortened 2011 season, Charles has graded out 4th, 1st, 16th, 2nd, and 13th on Pro Football Focus among running backs in 2009, 2010, 2012, 2013, and 2014 respectively. Charles is going into his age 29 season with 1511 career touches, but should have at least one more dominant season left in him, which is obviously great news for Chiefs fans.
- S Earl Thomas (Seattle)
Last year: 51
A first round pick, Earl Thomas was a starter from the word go and has made 80 of 80 starts in 5 seasons in the league. Thomas has graded out above average in every season he’s been in the league, grading out 30th, 8th, 36th, 10th, and 5th in 2010-2014 respectively. The 5-10 208 pound Thomas played within 8 yards of the line of scrimmage on just 8.1% of snaps in 2014, 3rd least often in the NFL among eligible safeties, making him a great complement for Kam Chancellor (81.3% of snaps, 2nd most in the NFL). Thomas has missed 66 tackles in 5 seasons in the league, but, other than that, he’s great and he’s coming off the best season of his career in 2014.
- MLB Bobby Wagner (Seattle)
Last year: 119
Wagner, meanwhile, is a 2012 2nd round pick who has graded out 2nd, 12th, and 5th in 3 seasons in the NFL. Especially impressive about his 2014 season was that he did that despite missing 5 games with injury. If you take out the 5 week stretch where he didn’t play, he ranks 2nd at his position. In the 5 games he missed, the Seahawks allowed opponents to move the chains at a 72.38% rate, as opposed to 66.45% in the 11 games he played in the regular season. His presence was so noticeable that Tony Dungy actually cast his MVP vote for him because, as he explained, it’s most “valuable.” That’s absurd.
Yes, the Seahawks did really miss him when he was hurt, but basic interference suggests that the Packers would have missed Aaron Rodgers far more if he were hurt or the Texans with JJ Watt. However, Wagner did have a fantastic season. His only real issue is he’s missed 7 games with injury over the past 2 seasons. Ahead of his age 25 contract year in 2015, the Seahawks locked up Wagner on a 4-year, 43 million dollar deal, making him the highest paid middle linebacker other than fellow 2012 draftee Luke Kuechly.
- C Jason Kelce (Philadelphia)
Last year: 88
Jason Kelce was Pro Football Focus’ 8th ranked center last season despite missing 4 games with injury. A 2011 6th round pick, Kelce was forced into action too quickly as a rookie and graded out 33rd out of 35 eligible centers, but he flashed in 2 starts in 2012 before going down for the season and then graded out 1st in 2013, before backing it up again last season. Only going into his age 28 season, he’s in the prime of his career and one of the best centers in the game. There’s
- OLB Jamie Collins (New England)
Last year: NA
Collins only blitzed 85 times last season, but managed to record 4 sacks, 6 hits, and 16 hurries, an outstandingly good performance in that aspect for the collegiate defensive end. Collins isn’t just a good blitzer though, as he’s developed into one of the best overall linebackers in the game, easily making the position switch from college to the pros. He graded out 3rd among middle linebackers on Pro Football Focus last season. With the Patriots moving to a 4-3, Collins will move back outside, where he flashed on 302 snaps as a 2nd round rookie in 2013. He’s technically just a one-year wonder because he’s only been a starter in the league for one year, but, going into his age 26 season, Collins seems like a budding superstar linebacker.
- DE Jurrell Casey (Tennessee)
Last year: 50
Jurrell Casey led the way for the Titans with 931 snaps played, epitomizing an every down player. The 2011 3rd round pick has developed into one of the best interior defensive linemen in the NFL and got a well-deserved 4-year, 36 million dollar extension last off-season. Casey spent the first 3 years of his career in a 4-3, grading out 16th, 8th, and 5th among defensive tackles, and then showed his scheme versatility when the Titans switched to a 3-4 last off-season. He graded out 7th among 3-4 defensive ends in 2014, as one of the Titans’ lone bright spots. Only going into his age 26 season, I expect more of the same from him this season, only with a better supporting cast.
- OLB Lavonte David (Tampa Bay)
Last year: 14
Lavonte David remains as the three-down 4-3 outside linebacker for the Buccaneers, a role which he plays arguably better than anyone in the NFL, reminiscent of a young Lance Briggs. David, a 2012 2nd round pick, has played 46 of 48 games in 3 seasons in the league, grading out 6th, 2nd, and 7th among 4-3 outside linebackers in 2012, 2013, and 2014 respectively. Only going into his age 25 season in 2015, David is just entering the prime of his career. Ahead of his contract year, the Buccaneers gave him a 5-year, 50.5 million dollar extension this off-season.
- S Harrison Smith (Minnesota)
Last year: NA
Smith shook off a sophomore season in 2013 in which he graded out below average and missed 8 games with injury, by playing all 16 games and grading out 2nd among safeties in 2014. He played at an All-Pro level and he’s not a one-year wonder either. His 2013 wasn’t great, but he played all 16 games and ranked 19th at his position in 2012. The Vikings made the no brainer move to pick up his 5th year rookie option this off-season (another benefit of moving up into the first round to grab him) and hope that he continues this kind of top level play into his age 26 season in 2015 and beyond. They’ll try to sign him to a long-term extension over the next calendar year and it could rival or even surpass deals given to Earl Thomas (4 years, 40 million), Devin McCourty (5 years, 48.5 million), and Jairus Byrd (6 years, 54 million). He’s one of the best safeties in the NFL.
- OT Joe Staley (San Francisco)
Last year: 26
A remainder of the 49ers’ previously dominant seasons, Staley is just one of 4 players on either side of the ball that are starters now that were also starters in 2011 (Vernon Davis, Ahmad Brooks, and NaVorro Bowman are the other 3). A 2007 1st round pick, Staley has started 114 games over the past 8 seasons, grading out above average in every season except 2010. Since 2012, Staley has graded out 1st, 5th, and 4th among offensive tackles on Pro Football Focus, the only offensive tackle in the league to finish in the top-5 in 3 straight seasons. Even going into his age 31 season, he’s one of the best offensive tackles in the game. He’s the saving grace of a crumbling offensive line.
- OLB DeAndre Levy (Detroit)
Last year: NA
DeAndre Levy might be the Lions’ best defensive player now, with Suh gone and Tulloch coming off of an injury. Levy has been a starter since the Lions drafted him in the 3rd round in 2009, making 82 starts in 6 seasons in the league, but he graded out below average in each of his first 4 seasons. The Lions re-signed him two off-seasons ago anyway, bringing him back on a 3-year, 9.75 million dollar deal, and that’s been an absolute steal as Levy has broken to be a late bloomer. He’s graded out 9th and 3rd among 4-3 outside linebackers in the last 2 seasons respectively and is one of the best in the game at his position. Only going into his age 28 season, Levy was given a 5-year, 37.2 million dollar extension this off-season, ahead of the contract year of that aforementioned 3-year deal. It’s not quite the same bargain, but he’s still worth it.
- DE Kyle Williams (Buffalo)
Last year: 16
Kyle Williams is older, going into his age 32 season, but he’s very good and has shown no signs of declining. He has graded out above average in every season starting in 2008. His best season came in 2010, when he graded out 1st among defensive tackles, and he’s bounced back well from a serious 2011 injury, grading out 3rd among defensive tackles in 2012, 3rd among 3-4 defensive ends in 2013, and 7th among defensive tackles last season. I expect basically the same thing from the scheme versatile veteran this season, back in a 3-4.
- OT Andrew Whitworth (Cincinnati)
Last year: 32
Whitworth played outstanding last season, but that’s nothing new for him. Whitworth has made 94 of 96 starts since 2009 and has graded 12th, 1st, 9th, 9th, 15th, and 2nd among offensive tackles on Pro Football Focus in 2009-2014 respectively. The only season he graded out worse than 12th at his position was 2013, when he made just 9 starts at offensive tackle, as he missed 2 games with injury, and also made 5 starts at guard, where he graded out 7th, despite the limited action there. No one graded out better than him on fewer snaps at either positon and his composite grade would have been 1st among offensive tackles and 3rd among guards. It’s a highly impressive mix of versatility and dominance by a player who is quietly one of the best offensive linemen in the NFL. His age is definitely a concern, but he could easily have another dominant year this year. He’s reportedly not happy the Bengals used their first two draft picks on offensive tackles. Considering how good he is, it seems kind of silly that the Bengals have already given up on his long-term future with the team.
- DE Robert Quinn (St. Louis)
Last year: 8
Robert Quinn, a 2011 1st round pick, lived up to his massive potential in 2013. After grading out below average in each of his first 2 seasons in the NFL, the 2011 14th overall pick had the best defensive season in the NFL in 2013, aside from maybe JJ Watt. Quinn graded out as Pro Football Focus’ #1 ranked 4-3 defensive end by a wide margin, thanks in large part to his 19 sacks and 21 hits. He couldn’t repeat it in 2014, but few can and, after grading out 10th at his position last season, it’s now clear that Quinn is not a one-year wonder. Only going into his age 25 season, Quinn is one of the best defensive players in the NFL.
- RB Eddie Lacy (Green Bay)
Last year: 133
Eddie Lacy has proven to be a great complement for Aaron Rodgers in the backfield. In 2 years in the NFL since the Packers drafted him in the 2nd round in 2013, Lacy has missed just 1 game with injury and rushed for 2317 yards and 20 touchdowns on 530 carries (4.37 YPC), while adding 77 catches for 684 yards and another 4 scores through the air. Certainly, Rodgers’ presence helps Lacy, but Lacy also helps Rodgers and is a fantastic running back in his own right. He graded out 5th among running backs on Pro Football Focus as a rookie in 2013, winning Offensive Rookie of the Year, and then finished 3rd in 2014. He joins Marshawn Lynch as the only running back in the NFL to grade out in the top-5 in each of the last 2 seasons. Only going into his age 25 season at a position where youth is such an asset, Lacy is one of the best running backs in the game.
- OLB Brandon Graham (Philadelphia)
Last year: NA
The Eagles re-signed Brandon Graham this off-season on a 4-year, 26 million dollar deal. That should prove to be the right move long-term as Graham could easily break out as one of the top edge rushers in the game in an every down role, which would make him an obvious bargain at 6.5 million annually. Graham is seen as not being able to play in a 3-4, but, while he’s probably better in a 4-3, he’s shown over the past two seasons that he can play in both schemes. After struggling with injuries in the first two seasons of his career, Graham, a 2010 1st round pick, had somewhat of a breakout year in 2012. He didn’t get a ton of playing time (435 snaps), which is why it’s hard to call it a true breakout year, but he still graded out 2nd among 4-3 defensive ends that season, despite the limited playing time.
Moving to a 3-4 in 2013, he only saw 331 snaps, but he still graded out 15th at his position, making it two straight years where no one played fewer snaps than him and graded out better at his position. In 2014, he was still the 3rd outside linebacker, but he set a career high in snaps played with 524 snaps and graded out 3rd among 3-4 outside linebackers. For the third straight year, no one graded out better at his position on fewer snaps. As a 700-800 snap guy, Graham has the potential to break out as one of the best edge rushers in the game. It’s somewhat risky considering he’s never played a significant amount of snaps, but he’s handled everything he’s been given in his career very well and the Eagles aren’t risking a ton of money here. His only weakness is coverage, but he won’t be asked to drop in coverage all that much. This opportunity to be an every down player has been a long time coming and it’s long overdue.