Top-200 NFL Players: 1-25 (2015)

1-25 26-50 51-75 76-100 101-125 126-150 151-175 176-200

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.

  1. DE JJ Watt (Houston)

Last year: 1

JJ Watt won the Defensive Player of the Year award last season for the 2nd time in 3 years and probably should have won it in all 3 seasons. He’s graded out as Pro Football Focus’ top rated player in each of the last 3 seasons. Those ratings aren’t necessarily meant to be compared across positions, but Watt has been so much better than everyone else that it’s a fairly safe assessment to make. With Watt over the past 3 seasons, we’ve witnessed a stretch of dominance by a player that hasn’t been seen since Reggie White’s prime at the most recent. The only season in his career when he didn’t grade out #1 at his position was his rookie year in 2011, when the 11th overall pick “only” graded out 5th among 3-4 defensive ends. Last season was arguably the best season of Watt’s career and his rating on Pro Football Focus reflected that, though the ratings are not meant to be compared across seasons either, which is why I said arguably.

Justin Houston did have more sacks than Watt last season, 23 as compared to 21, but Watt plays a position where it’s tougher to get to the quarterback. Also, while Houston had just 8 quarterback hits, Watt had 44. No one else had more than 21 in the NFL at any position. Watt added 54 quarterback hurries, which is actually less than Houston’s 56, and in terms of overall pass rush productivity (sacks + .75 hits + .75 hurries divided by pass rush snaps), Houston was actually the better of the two at 15.7 as compared to 15.0, but, again, Watt plays a much tougher position from which to get to the quarterback. No 3-4 defensive end other than Watt was better than 9.7 in pass rush productivity. Watt’s position is also more important to run defense than Houston.

Watt wasn’t nearly as good at his position against the run as he was as a pass rusher, but he still ranked 4th in that aspect this season. He’ll never be as valuable as a top quarterback and he probably won’t even make the playoffs again until his team figures out the quarterback situation, but he’s definitely the most valuable non-quarterback in the NFL. He’s easily the biggest reason why the Texans ranked 10th in opponent’s rate of moving the chains last season, as the Texans didn’t have a single player other than Watt finish in the top-10 at their position. Extended for 100 million over 6 years last off-season, Watt is locked up through his age 32 season in 2021 and at a very reasonable price, considering Justin Houston and Ndamukong Suh got 101 and 114 million respectively over 6 years.

  1. OLB Justin Houston (Kansas City)

Last year: 10

Houston might not be quite as good as Watt, but I still have him #2.  Justin Houston played all 16 games in 2014, after missing 5 games with an elbow problem in 2013. Houston finished 2013 as the #1 3-4 outside linebacker on Pro Football Focus despite missing so much time and picked up right where he left off in 2014, finishing #1 again by nearly a double margin, putting up a near record breaking 22 sacks. A 2011 3rd round pick, Houston has graded out 13th, 4th, 1st, and 1st among 3-4 outside linebackers in his career. The Chiefs didn’t let him hit free agency this off-season, giving him the franchise tag and eventually a 6-year, 101 million dollar extension. Houston will be a feared presence for the Chiefs off the edge again in 2015 and for the foreseeable future.

  1. OT Joe Thomas (Cleveland)

Last year: 3

Since being drafted 3rd overall in 2007, Thomas has made 128 of 128 starts and graded out as a top-10 offensive tackle in all 8 seasons, including 4th overall in 2014. With 5 All-Pros and 8 Pro-Bowls, Thomas’ career is on a Hall of Fame track. It’s just too bad he’s had to spend that career in an offense habitually without talented skill position players. Only going into his age 31 season, another dominant year should be on its way.

  1. OLB Von Miller (Denver)

Last year: 28

The 2nd overall pick in 2011, Miller won Defensive Rookie of the Year and then followed it up by finishing 2nd to JJ Watt in defensive player of the year voting in 2012. Miller missed 7 games with suspension and a torn ACL in 2013, but still graded out as Pro Football Focus’ #1 ranked 4-3 outside linebacker, despite the limited playing, making it 3 straight seasons as the #1 player at his position to start his career. Miller “slipped” to 2nd last year in his return from the ACL injury, but he remains one of the best defensive players in the entire league. After playing a hybrid outside linebacker/defensive end position in Denver’s old 4-3 and playing in a 3-4 at Texas A&M in college, Miller is a natural fit for Denver’s change scheme. I’m excited to see the combination of him and new defensive coordinator Wade Phillips.

  1. QB Aaron Rodgers (Green Bay)

Last year: 13

In case there was any doubt, Aaron Rodgers is the best quarterback in football, something he proved last season. With Tom Brady, Peyton Manning, and Drew Brees aging and Andrew Luck not quite there yet, Rodgers could keep that title for a couple years, at least. In 2014, Rodgers completed 65.6% of his passes for an average of 8.43 YPA, 38 touchdowns, and 5 interceptions, quarterbacked a team that moved the chains at a 79.38% rate, best in the NFL, graded out #1 among quarterbacks on Pro Football Focus, won the NFL’s MVP, and came close to knocking off the Seahawks in Seattle in the NFC Championship game and going to the Super Bowl.

It was about as good of a return from injury as the Packers could have expected from Rodgers after he missed 7 games and most of an 8th game with a broken collarbone in 2013. The Packers went 2-6 without Rodgers in 2013 and they are 18-6 with him over the past 2 seasons combined. Even in 2013, when injuries limited him to 592 snaps, he still graded out 8th among quarterbacks on Pro Football Focus, with no one playing fewer snaps and grading out better at the position. Since 2009, Rodgers has graded out 4th, 5th, 2nd, 3rd, 8th, and 1st respectively among quarterbacks, with his only season out of the top-5 coming in an injury shortened season.

Over that time period, Rodgers has only missed 9 games with injury, so he’s usually durable. He’s completed 66.3% of his passes, for an average of 8.41 YPA, 197 touchdowns, and 43 interceptions since 2009, winning 64 of 86 games (74.4%). He’s also added 1577 yards and 16 touchdowns on 309 carries on the ground (5.10 YPC), as he simply doesn’t have a weakness in his game. He’s going into his age 32 season in 2015, but that’s nothing for a top level quarterback. Plenty have had great success at that age and beyond. He could easily be the best quarterback in the NFL again, led the NFL’s top offense again, and pick up his 3rd MVP.

  1. DT Gerald McCoy (Tampa Bay)

Last year: 4

The 3rdoverall pick in the 2010 NFL Draft, Gerald McCoy has graded out above average in all 5 seasons of his career and has beaten early career injuries problems to grade out 2nd, 1st, and 2nd in 2012, 2013, and 2014 respectively. After missing 13 games with injury in 2010-2011 combined, he’s missed just 3 over the past 3 seasons. The Buccaneers locked McCoy up on a 7-year, 95.2 million dollar extension this off-season, which looked like a bargain when Miami paid 114 million over 6 years for a comparable player in Ndamukong Suh. The only defensive tackle to grade out in the top-2 at his position in each of the last 3 seasons, McCoy very much makes the Tampa Bay defensive line respectable by himself.

  1. TE Rob Gronkowski (New England)

Last year: 30

At this point last year, Rob Gronkowski was coming back from a torn ACL and was a serious injury concern. When he had January 2014 surgery on that knee, it was his 7th surgery since November 2012, including 5 on a twice broken arm, and one on his back. When Gronk was limited to 7 games in 2013, only 3 of those 9 missed games were because of the torn ACL, as he missed 6 games to start the season with arm and back problems. Throw in a significant high ankle sprain that limited him severely in the Super Bowl after the 2011 season and the fact that his back problems dated back to his collegiate days at the University of Arizona, when he missed an entire season with a back injury, and you had a guy that, even only going into his age 25 season, looked like damaged goods and someone who might never be the same again.

Instead, Gronk was Pro Football Focus’ best tight end by a wide margin in 2014, winning Comeback Player of the Year in the process. He finished 15th in the NFL in receiving yards and had 116 more yards than Greg Olsen, who was 2nd among tight ends in receiving yards this season. That was despite the fact that he wasn’t 100% to start the season, catching just 13 passes for 147 yards and 3 touchdowns in the first 4 games of the season, and despite the fact that he didn’t play in a meaningless week 17 game for precautionary reasons. That means that Gronk had an 11 game stretch in which he caught 69 passes for 977 yards and 9 touchdowns from the tight end spot. The Patriots moved the chains at an 80.87% rate in those 11 games (and went 10-1), as opposed to 65.47% in their other 5 games (2-3), propelling them to finish 6th in the league on the season in rate of moving the chains.

Gronk made it through the whole season injury free and was nothing less than he’s always been when on the field, possibly the most valuable offensive skill position player in the NFL (excluding quarterbacks). He’s caught 294 passes for 4231 yards and 49 touchdowns in his last 57 games and he averages 2.41 yards per route run in his 5 year career. For comparison, Jimmy Graham averages just 2.08 yards per route run over that same time period and Gronkowski is a significantly better blocker. He’s easily the top tight end in the league.

In games where Gronk plays over the past 4 years (since Gronk’s 2011 breakout year), Tom Brady completes 65.1% of his passes for an average of 7.80 YPA, 114 touchdowns, and 33 interceptions, including playoffs. When Gronk doesn’t play, over that stretch of time, Brady completes 58.1% of his passes for an average of 6.84 YPA, 30 touchdowns, and 13 interceptions. That’s a significant dropoff in production and there’s enough sample size on both sides to confidently attribute a lot of the difference in Brady’s production to the big tight end. If he can stay healthy, Gronkowski can have a truly special career.

  1. WR Antonio Brown (Pittsburgh)

Last year: 47

With Calvin Johnson nursing injuries last season, Brown took over the mantle of the best receiver in the NFL and, with Johnson getting older, it’s possible Brown keeps that title this season. Brown doesn’t win with height/weight/speed like Johnson at 5-10 186, but he has dependable hands, is the best route runner in the NFL, and is tough to take down in the open field. Brown led the league in catches and receiving yards last season, catching 129 passes (2nd most in a single season in NFL history) on 178 targets (72.5%) for 1698 yards and 13 touchdowns on 638 routes run, an average of 2.66 yards per route run, 7th in the NFL among eligible receivers.

His 5 drops give him a remarkably low drop rate and his 17 broken tackles were the 4th most in the NFL by a wide receiver. He’s not a one year wonder either, grading out 3rd at his position in 2013 (1st in pass catching grade), catching 110 passes on 159 attempts (69.2%) for 1499 yards and 8 touchdowns on 609 routes run, an average of 2.37 yards per route run, 7th among eligible receivers. He also ranked 7th among wide receivers overall in 2011, one of three 1000+ yard seasons in 5 years in the league.

Perhaps most impressively, Brown has caught at least 5 passes in 33 straight games (including playoffs), which demolished the previous NFL record of 19. Remarkably consistent, Brown has morphed into the top receiver in the NFL since Mike Wallace left Pittsburgh two off-seasons ago, proving the Steelers made the right choice by re-signing Brown to a 5-year, 41.96 million dollar extension 3 off-seasons ago and letting Wallace leave on a 5-year, 60 million dollar contract the following off-season. It was a risky move by the Steelers because Brown had only played 2 seasons in the NFL before he got the extension, but it paid off in a big way as that contract might be the best value in the NFL, not including rookie contracts.

  1. DE Michael Bennett (Seattle)

Last year: 15

Guys in the secondary like Earl Thomas, Richard Sherman, and Kam Chancellor get a lot of the credit in Seattle, but defensive lineman Michael Bennett is arguably as valuable as or more valuable than any of those three. He’s been a top-7 4-3 defensive end in each of the last 4 seasons, including a career best #2 last season, dominating as both a run stopper and a pass rusher at 6-3 274. The 4 year, 28.5 million dollar deal Bennett signed with the Seahawks last off-season rivals Antonio Brown’s deal for team friendliest in the NFL.

  1. WR Calvin Johnson (Detroit)

Last year: 6

Wide receiver Calvin Johnson missed 3 games with injury in 2015 and was a decoy in another 2 (catching just 3 passes for 19 yards) because of a severely sprained ankle. In the 11 games he played healthy, the Lions moved the chains at a 72.59% rate, as opposed to 68.92% in the other 5 games. I think we can attribute most of that to Megatron. When healthy, he still put up great numbers, catching 68 passes for 1056 yards and 8 touchdowns in 11 games, which extrapolates to 99 catches for 1536 yards and 12 touchdowns over 16 games. Those are absurd numbers, but Johnson averaged 95 catches for 1564 yards and 11 touchdowns per season from 2010-2013, so those numbers are just another day at the office for him. He “only” averaged 2.29 yards per route run in 2014, but, if you take out the 2 weeks he played hurt, that average becomes 2.46. From 2010-2013, he averaged 2.37 yards per route run, best in the NFL over that time period.

Despite playing two games at significantly less than 100% last season, Johnson still finished the season as Pro Football Focus’ 7th ranked wide receiver on 705 snaps, with no one playing fewer snaps and grading out better at the position. If you throw out the weeks he was hurt, he graded out 3rd among wide receivers. Johnson graded out in the top-5 among wide receivers in every season from 2010-2013, something no one else can say, and now he’s graded out in the top-7 in each of the last 5 seasons, again something no one else can say. There are some people who think that, with Johnson going into his age 30 season and coming off of an injury plagued season, that we’re starting to see the beginning of a decline with him. That may be true and guys like Antonio Brown, Demaryius Thomas, and even Dez Bryant may be better than him, but he’s still one of the best players in the NFL and having him healthy all season will be a big boost to this team.

  1. G Marshal Yanda (Baltimore)

Last year: 52

Marshal Yanda, while older, has been one of the best offensive linemen in the NFL over the past few years. Last year, he graded out as Pro Football Focus’ #1 ranked guard, after uncharacteristically grading out 15th in 2013. Prior to 2013, he graded out in the top-5 at his position in three straight seasons, 2011 and 2012 at right guard and 2010 at right tackle. Even going into his age 31 season, he’s one of the most dominant players in the NFL.

  1. DE Cameron Wake (Miami)

Last year: 11

Free agent acquisition Ndamukong Suh isn’t Miami’s only dominant defensive lineman, as defensive end Cameron Wake is one of the best edge rushers in the game. He graded out 3rd among 4-3 defensive ends in 2009, 4th among 3-4 outside linebackers in 2010, 1stamong 3-4 outside linebackers in 2011, 1st among 4-3 defensive ends in 2012, 3rd among 4-3 defensive ends in 2013, and 1st among 4-3 defensive ends. The only issue is he’s going into his age 33 season. However, I’d call him the best defensive end in the game if not for his age and he’s yet to show any sort of signs of decline so I think we can count on another dominant year from him. Him and Suh on the same defensive line is going to be a nightmare for opponents’ offenses.

  1. CB Chris Harris (Denver)

Last year: 106

A 2011 undrafted free agent, Harris has improved basically every year he’s been in the NFL, to the point where he’s one of the top cornerbacks in the entire NFL right now. Harris graded out 22nd as a rookie (on 465 snaps), 5th in 2012, 8th in 2013, and 1st in 2014. He joins Richard Sherman as the only player in the NFL to grade out in the top-8 in each of the last 3 seasons on Pro Football Focus. Harris shook off a January 2014 torn ACL like it was nothing, en route to his career best 2014 campaign, during which he received a well-deserved 5-year, 42.5 million dollar extension in December ahead of free agency. Arguably the top cornerback in the NFL, he’s already a great value.

  1. G Josh Sitton (Green Bay)

Last year: 19

Sitton is arguably one of the best guards in the NFL. The 2008 4th round pick has made 94 of 96 starts since 2009 and graded out 8th, 5th, 2nd, 6th, 2nd, and 4th respectively in the 6 seasons since then. No other guard has graded out in the top-8 in each of the last 6 seasons, or even come close to that. He’s graded out above average in every season he’s been in the league and, only going into his age 29 with minimal injury history, he’s still in the prime of his career. He should be dominant again in 2015.

  1. WR Demaryius Thomas (Denver)

Last year: 40

Thomas has put up absurd numbers over the past 3 seasons, playing all 48 games, catching 297 passes for 4483 yards and 35 touchdowns. Playing with Peyton Manning at quarterback and being a target monster has definitely helped him, so his numbers could see a little bit of a dip this season if Manning has a down year, but he’s graded out 2nd, 5th, and 5th among wide receivers on Pro Football Focus in his own right in 2012, 2013, and 2014 respectively. No other wide receiver has graded out in the top-5 in all 3 of those seasons. The 2010 1st round pick was also productive with Tim Tebow in 2011, as he had 35 catches for 745 yards and 4 touchdowns in his final 7 games, including playoffs. That’s 80 catches for 1703 yards and 9 touchdowns extrapolated over 16 games. Along with Antonio Brown and Calvin Johnson, you can make a case for him as the best wide receiver in football. The Broncos kept him on a 5-year, 70 million dollar extension this off-season, after franchise tagging him.

  1. MLB Luke Kuechly (Carolina)

Last year: 54

Kuechly, the 9th overall pick in the 2012 NFL Draft, has graded out 7th, 8th, and 1st among middle linebackers in 2012, 2013, and 2014 respectively and is among the best in the game at his position. Only going into his age 24 season, Kuechly might just be entering his prime. The Panthers made him the highest paid middle linebacker in NFL history this off-season, by giving him a 5-year, 62 million dollar extension.

  1. CB Richard Sherman (Seattle)

Last year: 9

Richard Sherman has made 48 of 48 starts over the past 3 seasons and 58 in 4 seasons in the league, since the Seahawks grabbed him as a steal in the 5th round in 2011. In 4 seasons in the league, he’s graded out 16th, 2nd, 5th, and 3rd from 2011-2014 respectively. He’s the only cornerback in the league to grade out in the top-5 in 3 straight seasons and is firmly in that top tier of cornerbacks with Darrelle Revis and Chris Harris.

  1. DT Ndamukong Suh (Miami)

Last year: 34

Suh is a fantastic football player, one of the best defensive tackles in the game, and arguably one of the best players in the NFL regardless of position. He’s been a top-4 defensive tackle on Pro Football Focus in each of the last 3 seasons, joining only Gerald McCoy as the only two players who can say that. That being said, he was definitely overpaid on a 6-year, 114 million dollar deal, with 60 million guaranteed. That is too much for any non-quarterback, except for maybe JJ Watt, but he’s on his own level. Even Watt got “only” 100 million over 6 years. Still, Suh is a fantastic player who will really help the Dolphins.

  1. RB Le’Veon Bell (Pittsburgh)

Last year: NA

Le’Veon Bell will miss the first 2 games of the season with a suspension for marijuana possession and a DUI. That’s bad news because, when Bell got hurt in Pittsburgh’s week 17 game last season, knocking him out for the playoffs, it made the Steelers a noticeably different offense, leading to a home loss to the Baltimore Ravens in the first round. Bell’s importance to the Steelers wasn’t just proven in the Baltimore loss. It should have been evident all year, as the 2013 2nd round pick broke out as arguably the best running back in the NFL during the regular season, a big part of the reason for Pittsburgh’s offensive dominance. He’s still just a one year wonder, after averaging just 3.52 yards per carry as a rookie, but I think he was the best running back in the NFL last season, apologies to DeMarco Murray.

Murray obviously was the NFL’s leading rusher with 1845 yards, 484 more than Bell who was in 2nd with 1361. However, that’s largely because Murray had more carries, 392 to 290. Bell’s 4.69 YPC was very comparable to Murray’s 4.71, even though Murray ran behind a Dallas offensive line that ranked 2nd in run blocking grade on Pro Football Focus, while Pittsburgh’s ranked 9th. Murray was also much more useful on passing downs, grading out better in pass protection and pass receiving.

Bell’s 83 catches for 853 yards (basically wide receiver numbers) help make up for the difference in yardage totals between Bell and Murray, as Murray caught just 57 passes for 416 yards. Murray only finished with 55 more yards on 69 more touches. While Murray had the higher pure running grade on Pro Football Focus last season (still behind Marshawn Lynch though) Bell was Pro Football Focus’ #1 overall ranked running back. Even as a rookie when he averaged a low YPC, he still graded out above average overall, ranking 31st among running backs, largely because of 45 catches for 399 yards.

  1. S Eric Weddle (San Diego)

Last year: 31

Chargers also have arguably the best safety in the game in Eric Weddle, someone who has been there since the Chargers drafted him in the 2nd round in 2007. Weedle has graded out in the top-6 among safeties in every season from 2010-2014 on Pro Football Focus, the only safety in the NFL that can say that. Earl Thomas and Devin McCourty might be better deep safeties, but I don’t know if there is a better all-around safety than Weedle. He grades out well both against the run and against the pass and has played about half of his snaps within 8 yards of the line of scrimmage and half outside of 8 yards in the last 2 seasons.

  1. RB Marshawn Lynch (Seattle)

Last year: 108

Over the past 3 seasons, Lynch has rushed for 4153 yards and 36 touchdowns on 896 carries, an average of 4.64 YPC and he’s been even better than his numbers suggest as, like Wilson, he has to deal with a poor offensive line and a receiving corps that rarely draws double teams. The fact that the Seahawks finished 9th in rate of moving the chains last season on offense despite just 4 players who played more than 300 snaps and graded out above average on Pro Football Focus (Lynch, Wilson, Doug Baldwin, and Max Unger) is a testament to how good both Wilson and Lynch are.

Lynch has graded out 5th, 4th, and 2nd on Pro Football Focus in those last 3 seasons respectively and his 221 broken tackles on carries lead the NFL over that time period. He’s also the only running back in the NFL to grade out in the top-5 among running backs on Pro Football Focus in each of the last 3 seasons. There’s a case to be made that he’s been the best running back in football over the past 3 seasons, despite what guys like Adrian Peterson, LeSean McCoy, DeMarco Murray, and LeVeon Bell have done over single seasons over the past 3 years.

One issue is that he’s going into his age 29 season with 2033 career carries. Of the top-25 all-time leading rushers who have played in the last decade, the average one has his last 1000 yard season in his age 30 season at 2602 career carries. That suggests that Lynch has about 2, maybe 3 good years left in the tank and that possibly his best days are behind him. The only other issue is that Lynch isn’t a great pass catcher, as he has just 96 catches over the past 3 seasons and hasn’t graded out above average as a pass catcher on Pro Football Focus since his rookie year in 2007. That’s nitpicking though and he should still have a strong year in 2015.

  1. C Nick Mangold (NY Jets)

Last year: 136

Mangold is going into his age 31 season, but he hasn’t shown any signs of slowing down yet, grading out 1st among centers last season, making it 8 straight seasons where he’s graded out above average. He’s been in the top-2 among centers in 6 of those 8 seasons and in the top-6 among centers in 6 of those 8 seasons and could easily do so again this season. Even though he’s played so well, Mangold’s age is a concern and he might not be quite as dominant in 2015, though he should still play very well.

  1. CB Darrelle Revis (NY Jets)

Last year: 12

Revis finished 3rd among cornerbacks on Pro Football Focus in 2008, 2nd in 2009, 18th in 2010, 1st in 2011, 1st in 2013, and 4th in 2014, with a torn ACL in 2012 that didn’t slow his career down in between. He’s bounced around from the Jets to the Buccaneers to the Patriots back to the Jets over the past few seasons for a few reasons. He tore his ACL in 2012 and then was traded to the Buccaneers for a 1stround pick ahead of his contract year. Tampa Bay then let him go rather than paying him $16 million in 2014 and the Patriots did the same this off-season, rather than paying him $20 million in 2015. However, he’s arguably the best cornerback in the NFL, one of the best players in the entire NFL, and absolutely deserves long-term security, even going into his age 30 season, which he got on a 5-year, 70 million dollar deal. He’s yet to show a single sign of slowing down thus far.

  1. DE Calais Campbell (Arizona)

Last year: 21

Calais Campbell is arguably the Cardinals’ most indispensable player on either side of the field (only behind maybe the quarterback Carson Palmer). He was Pro Football Focus’ 4th ranked 3-4 defensive end last season and has graded out in the top-4 in each of the last 4 seasons at the position, something no one else can say. Only going into his age 29 season with just 7 games missed in 7 seasons in his career, I see no reason that can’t continue next season. Aside from JJ Watt, he’s arguably the best 3-4 defensive end in the game.

  1. WR Odell Beckham (NY Giants)

Last year: NA

Beckham finished his rookie season in 2014 with 91 catches for 1302 yards and 12 touchdowns despite missing valuable off-season time and doing so in just 12 games. That’s incredible and virtually unheard of for a rookie. 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. Transitioning from being a collegiate receiver to an NFL receiver is really tough, even for the most talented of players. Only 11 rookie wideouts have had a 1000+ yard season in the last 20 years. 1302 yards in 12 games is absurd.

Beckham’s 108.8 yards per game led the NFL. And it wasn’t like Eli was just forcing him the ball as he was targeted just 129 times (14th most in the NFL), catching 70.5% of them for 91 catches, that as opposed to just 2 drops. Beckham also caught 12 touchdowns and only 2 balls intended for him were intercepted. Eli had a 127.6 QB rating throwing to Beckham this season, 4th best among eligible wide receivers, meaning Eli’s quarterback rating was 35.5 points better when throwing to Beckham than it was overall, the best margin by an eligible wide receiver this season. Beckham’s 2.74 yards per route run were also 4th in the NFL. For his efforts, he was Pro Football Focus’ 4th ranked wide receiver as a rookie, including 2nd in pure pass catching grade, meaning he basically played at an All-Pro level, despite missing 4 games with injury. If you take out the first 4 weeks of the season, he was Pro Football Focus’ #1 ranked wide receiver both overall and in pass catching grade.

Beckham was even better down the stretch as he started to get a feel for the offense. Beckham had 85 catches for 1233 yards and 11 touchdowns in his final 10 games of the season and 60 catches for 842 yards and 9 touchdowns in the final 6 games of the season. The latter translates to 160 catches for 2245 yards and 24 touchdowns over a 16 game season, which would break all sorts of records. Even Beckham isn’t good enough to put up those kinds of numbers, but it’s just another reminder that Beckham could easily be more productive in his 2nd season in the league in 2015. It’s usually hyperbolic to say that someone with 12 career games played is one of the best players in the NFL regardless of position, but, in this case, it’s true.

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Top-200 NFL Players: 26-50 (2015)

1-25 26-50 51-75 76-100 101-125 126-150 151-175 176-200

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.

  1. 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.

  1. 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.

  1. 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.

  1. 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.

  1. 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.

  1. 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.

  1. 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.

  1. 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.

  1. 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.

  1. 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.

  1. 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.

  1. 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.

  1. 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.

  1. 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

  1. 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.

  1. 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.

  1. 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.

  1. 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.

  1. 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.

  1. 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.

  1. 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.

  1. 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.

  1. 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.

  1. 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.

  1. 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.

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Top-200 NFL Players: 51-75 (2015)

1-25 26-50 51-75 76-100 101-125 126-150 151-175 176-200

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.

  1. 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.

  1. 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.

  1. 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.

  1. 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.

  1. 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.

  1. 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.

  1. 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.

  1. 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.

  1. 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.

  1. 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.

  1. 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.

  1. 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.

  1. 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.

  1. 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.

  1. 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.

  1. 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.

  1. 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.

  1. 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.

  1. 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.

  1. 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.

  1. 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.

  1. 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.

  1. 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.

  1. 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.

  1. 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.

Top-200 NFL Players: 76-100 (2015)

1-25 26-50 51-75 76-100 101-125 126-150 151-175 176-200

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.

  1. 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.

  1. 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.

  1. 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.

  1. 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.

  1. 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.

  1. 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.

  1. 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.

  1. 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.

  1. 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.

  1. 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.

  1. 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.

  1. 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.

  1. 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.

  1. 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.

  1. 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.

  1. 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.

  1. 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.

  1. 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.

  1. 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.

  1. 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.

  1. 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.

  1. 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.

  1. 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.

  1. 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.

  1. 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.

Top-200 NFL Players: 101-125 (2015)

1-25 26-50 51-75 76-100 101-125 126-150 151-175 176-200

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.

  1. MLB CJ Mosley (Baltimore)

Last year: NA

CJ Mosley is coming off of only his rookie year, but he is coming off of a strong year. Mosley graded out 10th among middle linebackers on Pro Football Focus as a rookie. The 2014 1st round pick has a bright future and looks like a big part of the next generation of this perennially dominant Ravens defense, along with fellow up and comers Will Hill, Timmy Jernigan, and Brandon Williams.

  1. QB Russell Wilson (Seattle)

Last year: 89

The Seahawks are so deep and talented on both sides of the field that it’s unfair to attribute their recent success to one person, but this team has certainly been a lot better over the past 3 seasons since they drafted Russell Wilson in the 3rd round in 2012 and solidified the quarterback position. In 2011, they had a strong defense that included many of the same players that headline the defense now, but they missed the playoffs because of a stagnant offense led by quarterback Tarvaris Jackson.

In 3 years in the league, Wilson has made 48 of 48 starts, winning 36 of them. It’s unfair to give him all the credit for those wins considering the defense he has supporting him, but he’s been a big part of it, completing 63.4% of his passes for an average of 7.95 YPA, 72 touchdowns, and 26 interceptions, while grading out 6th, 4th, and 13th among quarterbacks in 2012, 2013, and 2014 respectively. He’s also added 1877 yards and 11 touchdowns on 308 carries (6.09 YPC). His numbers are even more impressive when you consider the fact that he’s had little offensive support from his receiving corps or offensive line in his career. Ahead of his contract year, Wilson got a 4-year, 87.6 million dollar extension this off-season. He might not be quite that good, but he’s close, he’s young (going into his age 27 season), and the Seahawks didn’t have another choice but to pay him. Quarterbacks like him are far too indispensable.

  1. OT Ricky Wagner (Baltimore)

Last year: NA

The Ravens had a much improved offense from 2013 to 2014. The biggest upgrade was at right tackle, where 2nd year pro Ricky Wagner broke out in his first season as a starter. After 131 nondescript snaps as a 5th round rookie in 2013, Wagner graded out as Pro Football Focus’ 16th ranked offensive tackle in 2014. On top of that, he was the 3rd highest ranked right tackle. He’s a one year wonder and he wasn’t highly drafted, but he could definitely have another strong season. He seems like a young building block for the Ravens and yet another draft day steal by Ozzie Newsome.

  1. DT Damon Harrison (NY Jets)

Last year: 180

Damon Harrison has shaken off early career weight problems to grade out 4th and 14th among defensive tackles on Pro Football Focus in 2013 and 2014 respectively, including 1st and 3rd among defensive tackles in pure run grade. He’s just a pure two-down base player, but you’d be hard pressed to find a better pure two-down base player in the league. Weight concerns will always exist for the 6-4 350 pound 2012 undrafted free agent, but, as long as he’s in shape, he’s borderline impossible to move off the nose.

  1. G Louis Vasquez (Denver)

Last year: 48

The only Bronco offensive lineman locked into his 2015 spot is Louis Vasquez at right guard, on an overall poor offensive line. Vasquez only made 8 starts at right guard last season, but that was because the Broncos decided to move him to right tackle late in the season as they were shuffling their offensive front around. This season, I expect Vasquez to stay at right guard, as he struggled at right tackle. At right guard, he graded out 29th at his position on Pro Football Focus in 8 starts and that’s actually a down year for him. The 2009 3rd round pick graded out 26thamong guards in 2009, 29th in 2010, 30th in 2011, 13th in 2012, and 3rd in 2013. Only going into his age 28 season, him bouncing back in his natural position is the surest thing the Broncos have on the offensive line.

  1. OT Duane Brown (Houston)

Last year: 69

Duane Brown is older (going into his age 30 season), but more proven, with 7 years in the league since being drafted in the 1st round in 2008. He struggled to start his career, grading out below average in each of his first 2 seasons in the league, but he’s graded out above average in the last 5, ranking 21st, 3rd, 2nd, 24th, and 10th respectively among offensive tackles in 2010, 2011, 2012, 2013, and 2014 respectively. Even though he’s a little older now and not as good as he was in his prime in 2011 and 2012, he’s still one of the better offensive tackles in the league and should have another strong season in 2015. He’s expected to miss the first few games of the season with a broken hand and the Texans obviously would want him back sooner rather than later.

  1. QB Tony Romo (Dallas)

Last year: 172

Tony Romo overcome age and back problems to complete 69.9% of his passes for an average of 8.52 YPA, 34 touchdowns, and 9 interceptions last season, a QB rating of 113.2 that was over 10 points higher than his previous career high QB rating and over 15 points higher than his career average QB rating. Part of that was his supporting cast, but part of that was him, as he graded out as Pro Football Focus’ 6th ranked quarterback, a career high. Romo’s never really been a bad quarterback, grading out 8th, 23rd, 16th, 9th, 9th, 10th, and 13th from 2007-2013 respectively, but he’s also unlikely to repeat the best season of his career in his age 35 season in 2015, supporting cast aside.

  1. WR DeAndre Hopkins (Houston)

Last year: NA

Hopkins broke out in his 2nd year in the league in 2014, catching 76 passes on 120 attempts (63.3%) for 1210 yards and 6 touchdowns on 534 routes run, an average of 2.27 yards per route run, while grading out as Pro Football Focus’ 12th ranked wide receiver. Hopkins did grade out below average as a rookie and is technically a one-year wonder, but plenty of good receivers struggle as rookies and that doesn’t mean he can’t repeat what he did in 2014 or even continue to get better.

Hopkins will only be in his age 23 season in 2015 and receivers often have a 3rd year breakout year. It’s possible that Hopkins is only scratching the surface on his 1st round talent and will be one of the best few wide receivers in the game in 2-3 years, but even if he just does what he did last year again, he’ll be a huge asset to this team. One concern is he had just 21 catches for 239 yards and no touchdowns in the 5 games that Fitzpatrick didn’t start and finish last season and he could have his numbers kept down by poor quarterback play this season, but that won’t be his fault. He could also see more targets this season with Andre Johnson (141 targets) gone, though he’ll also probably see more double teams as a result. Either way, he’s a very talented young receiver who might just need some help to produce big numbers.

  1. S George Iloka (Cincinnati)

Last year: NA

George Iloka was a 2012 5th round pick and has been a breakout player for the Bengals over the past 2 seasons. After not playing a defensive snap as a rookie in 2012, Iloka graded out 20th among safeties in 2013 and then 12th among safeties in 2014. It’s the kind of progress you love to see out of a young player, especially one who is only going into his age 25 season. Opposing quarterbacks completed just 38.7% of their passes throwing at him last season, with no touchdowns to 3 interceptions. He’s a prime extension candidate over the next few months.

  1. TE Martellus Bennett (Chicago)

Last year: NA

Tight end Martellus Bennett led all Bear wide receivers and tight ends with catches last season with 90 and finished 2nd on the team in receiving yards behind Alshon Jeffery, taking those 90 catches for 916 yards and 6 touchdowns. Stuck behind future Hall of Famer Jason Witten for 4 years in Dallas to start his career, Bennett has broken out as a talented starting tight end over the past 3 years out of Witten’s shadow. He’s caught 210 passes for 2301 yards and 16 touchdowns combined over the past 3 seasons, grading out 6th, 19th, and 6th respectively among tight ends and playing in 48 out of 48 possible games.

Even when he was playing a more limited role as the #2 tight end in Dallas, he graded out above average every season, meaning the 2008 2nd round pick has graded out above average in all 7 seasons of his career. A well rounded tight end who can catch passes and block at 6-6 259, Bennett has graded out above average as a run blocker in all 7 seasons of his career and above average as a pass catcher in each of the last 3 seasons as a starter.

  1. CB Alterraun Verner (Tampa Bay)

Last year: 93

Verner performed well in the first year of a 4-year, 25.5 million dollar deal, signing in Tampa Bay, after spending the first 4 seasons of his career in Tennessee. He missed the first 2 games of his career (78 out of 80 starts made since being drafted in the 4th round by the Titans in 2010), but still graded out 7th among cornerbacks, a career best. Much of that was because he was far and away the best run stopping cornerback in the NFL and he actually graded out slightly below average in coverage, but he’s still a solid cover cornerback with fantastic run stopping abilities and he has graded out above average in all 5 seasons in the league. He’s graded out 21st, 11th, 25th, 13th, and 7th respectively from 2010-2014, including 12th, 13th, 37th, 17th, and 50th in coverage. He’s the only cornerback in the NFL to grade out in the top-25 among cornerbacks on Pro Football Focus in each of the last 5 seasons and should continue strong play into his age 27 season in 2015.

  1. G Kevin Zeitler (Cincinnati)

Last year: 161

Kevin Zeitler was a 2012 1st round pick and was a starter from day 1. He’s been very good from the word go too, as he has graded out as Pro Football Focus’ 12th, 27th, and 9th ranked guard in 2012, 2013, and 2014 respectively. If there’s one issue with Zeitler, it’s that he’s missed some time with injury, missing 8 games over the past 2 seasons with a variety of minor lower body injuries. Still, it was a no brainer decision by the Bengals to pick up his 5th year option for 2016, which is guaranteed for injury only. The Bengals should look to extend him long-term at some point soon.

  1. OT Lane Johnson (Philadelphia)

Last year: NA

Lane Johnson is a young player, as he will be only in his age 25 season in his 3rd year in the league in 2015, but he’s already very good. An athletic freak who ran 4.72 at 6-6 303 at the Combine, Johnson was drafted 4th overall in 2013. He graded out slightly below average as a rookie, especially struggling in pass protection, but he was dominant as a run blocker, grading out as Pro Football Focus’ 9thranked offensive tackle in run blocking grade. In 2014, he put it all together, doing well in both aspects and grading out as Pro Football Focus’ 13th ranked offensive tackle, after missing the first 4 games of the season with suspension. In his 3rd year in the league in 2015, he should once again have a strong season and could even be better.

  1. QB Matt Ryan (Atlanta)

Last year: 110

Matt Ryan, the 3rd overall pick in the 2008 NFL Draft, started his career 56-22 in his first 5 seasons in the league, but lost his first 3 playoff games. He seemed to be past that in 2012, when he beat the Seattle in the divisional round, even though they came up short in the NFC Championship against San Francisco, dropping Ryan’s post-season record to 1-4. Everything has been all downhill since then, as Ryan has gone 10-22 over the past 2 seasons. Once the guy who couldn’t win in the playoffs is now seen as a guy who can’t win at all. However, both of those assessments put too much stock in quarterback wins as an individual stat. Ryan really hasn’t had a lot of help over the past two seasons.

Ryan himself isn’t playing that badly, grading out 5th among quarterbacks in 2014, completing 66.1% of his passes for an average of 7.47 YPA, 28 touchdowns, and 14 interceptions. In 6 seasons in the league, he’s graded out above average in all 6 seasons, including 2nd in 2010, 4th in 2011, 5th in 2012, 14th in 2013, and then 5th last season. He’s completed 64.0% of his passes for an average of 7.19 YPA, 181 touchdowns, and 91 interceptions, while going 66-44 overall, still pretty good, despite recent team struggles.

The offense hasn’t been the problem in Atlanta over the past two seasons, despite problems on the offensive line, in the receiving corps, and at running back, as they’ve moved the chains at the 11th best rate in the NFL in both 2013 and 2014, thanks largely to Ryan. The problem has been the defense, as they finished 27th and 31st in 2013 and 2014 respectively in opponents’ rate of moving the chains. As a result, they’ve finished 20thand 23rd respectively in rate of moving the chains differential in 2013 and 2014, and they’ve won 4 and 6 games in those 2 seasons respectively as a result. Ryan is definitely a strong quarterback, but he can’t do it alone.

  1. G Orlando Franklin (San Diego)

Last year: 168

Franklin has started 63 of 64 games since the Broncos drafted him in the 2nd round in 2011, 47 at right tackle from 2011-2013 and 16 at left guard last season. He’s graded out above average in each of the last 3 seasons, 12th among offensive tackles in 2012, 17th among offensive tackles in 2013, and 13th among guards in 2014. The Chargers filled a big need by signing him this off-season, bringing him over for 35.5 million over 5 years, a good value considering Mike Iupati got 40 million over the same time period.

  1. DT Haloti Ngata (Detroit)

Last year: 103

Ngata to Detroit in a trade from Baltimore for a 4th and 5th round pick and will make 8.5 million dollars in the final year of his contract in 2015. He’s going into his age 31 season, but he graded out as Pro Football Focus’ 9th ranked 3-4 defensive end in 2014 and he’s graded out as a top-18 player at his position in every season since Pro Football Focus’ inception in 2007. He’s played in both 3-man and 4-man fronts in his career and both stops the run and rushes the passer well, even at 6-4 340, so he’ll fit in well in Detroit. His age is a concern, as he goes into his age 31 season, but he should have another strong season.

  1. G Brandon Brooks (Houston)

Last year: 137

Right guard Brandon Brooks has quickly developed into one of the better guards in the NFL and he’s only going into his age 26 season. The 2012 3rd round pick flashed on 111 snaps as a rookie, took over the starting job the following off-season and hasn’t looked back, making 31 of 32 starts over the past 2 seasons and grading out 10th and 8th in 2013 and 2013 respectively. Heading into his contract year, he figures to be paid very well at some point. The Texans will probably try to lock him up ahead of free agency next March.

  1. WR Alshon Jeffery (Chicago)

Last year: 75

While Brandon Marshall is gone, Alshon Jeffery remains as now the undisputed #1 receiver and he’s a lot more indispensable than Marshall. He graded out 28th among wide receivers last year, including 22nd in pure pass catching grade. On top of that, he graded out 9th among wide receivers in 2013 and is only going into his age 25 season, so he still has upside, as he enters his prime. Since struggling in limited action as a 2nd round rookie in 2012, Jeffery has caught 174 passes for 2554 yards and 17 touchdowns over the past 2 seasons combined. The Bears want to lock him up long-term ahead of his contract year in 2015 and any extension he’s given will be paid for with the money they saved by moving on from Marshall.

  1. OT Kelvin Beachum (Pittsburgh)

Last year: NA

The best player upfront on the Steelers’ strong offensive line last season was left tackle Kelvin Beachum, who had a breakout 3rd year in the league. The 2012 7th round pick made 17 starts in 2012 and 2013, 11 at left tackle, 5 at right tackle, and 1 at center, but graded out below average in both seasons. However, in 2014, Beachum graded out 5th among offensive tackles, excelling in pass protection. He’s still a one year wonder, which is important to remember, but he’s a talented player. Going into the contract year of his rookie deal, he’s an extension candidate this off-season.

  1. DE Jared Odrick (Jacksonville)

Last year: 135

Free agent acquisition Jared Odrick will be counted on to safe Jacksonville’s defensive line, after being signed from Miami on a 5-year, 42.5 million dollar deal. It’s an overpay, but, unlike several of their other free agent acquisitions, he is proven as a starter, grading out 16th and 19th among defensive tackles in 2013 and 2014. In Jacksonville, he’ll replace Red Bryant at defensive end in base packages. Bryant, a 6-5 328 pound run stopping specialist, graded out 3rd among 4-3 defensive ends against the run last season, but 57th out of 59 eligible 4-3 defensive ends as a pass rusher, leading to his release ahead of a non-guaranteed 4.25 million dollar salary this off-season.

Odrick is a much more complete player and will play inside in sub packages at his natural position of defensive tackle, so he’ll play more in the Michael Bennett role than the Red Bryant role if we’re comparing this defensive front to the defensive front in Seattle, where Jacksonville head coach Gus Bradley used to be the defensive coordinator. My one concern is Odrick struggled mightily early in his career as both a 3-4 and a 4-3 defensive end, including 59th out of 62 eligible 4-3 defensive ends in 2012. It’s possible those days are past him, but I like him more as a pure interior player.

  1. CB Sean Smith (Kansas City)

Last year: NA

Sean Smith is coming off likely the best season of his career, grading out 5th among cornerbacks on Pro Football Focus. Smith has a concerning history of inconsistency though, so he’s far from a lock to repeat that kind of season. Smith graded out 10th at his position in 2010, but graded out average or worse in 2011, 2012, and 2013, including 105th out of 109 eligible in 2012. All in all, the 2009 2nd round pick has graded out above average in 4 of 6 seasons in the NFL, but he’s had as many bad seasons and as many average seasons as he’s had dominant seasons. He’s also suspended for the first 3 weeks of the season for substance abuse issues.

  1. DT Terrance Knighton (Washington)

Last year: 156

Knighton was one of the better defensive tackles in the NFL over the past 2 seasons, grading out as Pro Football Focus’ 9th ranked defensive tackle in 2013 and their 12th ranked in 2014. I expected him to get a deal somewhere in the neighborhood of 40 million over 5 years, but he didn’t come close to that because of concerns about his weight, signing in Washington for 4 million over 1 year. The big defensive tackle known as Pot Roast reportedly played around 330 last season, which seems to be a comfortable playing weight for him, given how well he played last season, but when a player is that big, there’s always a chance his weight gets out of control and it’s very possible that he’s gotten out of shape since the season ended.

That’s a very real concern, but this deal is still an absolute steal. Not only is it significantly less money annually that what I was expecting him to get, but there’s no risk beyond this season if he does show up overweight. On top of that, the fact that he could only get this type of deal could serve as a wakeup call for him and I like that he’s betting on himself with this type of deal. He’ll have every reason to remain motivated this season and that should translate to continued strong play. Even though he’s 330 pounds, he’s a decent pass rusher and has a good chance to stay on the field in some sub packages, meaning he won’t just be a pure base package, two-down run stopper.

  1. QB Cam Newton (Carolina)

Last year: NA

Cam Newton had the worst quarterback rating of his career in 2014 (82.1), completing 58.5% of his passes for an average of 6.98 YPA, 18 touchdowns, and 12 interceptions. However, a lot of that was the fault of his weak receiving corps and offensive line. Newton still graded out 8th among quarterbacks on Pro Football Focus, making it 4 straight seasons where he’s graded out above average to start his career. He graded out 14th in 2011, 11th in 2012, and 15th in 2013.

Even though he was only average as a passer, he remained arguably the best running quarterback in the NFL, rushing for 539 yards and 5 touchdowns on 103 attempts. In his career, he’s rushed for 2571 yards and 33 touchdowns on 467 attempts in just 4 seasons. On top of that, he’s completed 59.5% of his passes for an average of 7.50 YPA, 82 touchdowns, and 54 interceptions, despite generally having weak supporting casts. This off-season he signed a 5-year, 103.8 million dollar extension that locks him in as their franchise quarterback into the future.

Newton’s only issue last season was injuries, but he didn’t let it affect his play much. He only missed 2 games with injury (one of which was actually the result of a car accident), but he dealt with back, ankle, rib, and foot problems throughout the season. However, those were the first 2 games he’s missed with injury in his career. He takes a lot of hits from pass rushers as a result of a weak offensive line, but he generally is able to tough it out through them thanks to his 6-5 244 frame, much like Ben Roethlisberger early in his career, so I wouldn’t call him injury prone at all.

Newton was especially good in his final 4 games after the Panthers’ week 12 bye, as he was able to rest his whole body. He completed 58.3% of his passes for an average of 6.39 yards per attempt, 6 touchdowns, and 2 interceptions over that tiny period, while rushing for 246 yards and 3 touchdowns on 39 attempts. He continued with that in the playoffs, completing 60.3% of his passes for an average of 6.53 YPA, 4 touchdowns, and 3 interceptions, while rushing for 72 yards on 18 attempts. If the Panthers are able to protect Newton better and his supporting cast is able to be more helpful in 2015, the Panthers should be a much improved offense. Newton is one of their few offensive building blocks.

  1. WR Golden Tate (Detroit)

Last year: 173

The Lions really missed Calvin Johnson when he was hurt in 2014, but the one thing that was better for the Lions offensively last year was the addition of Golden Tate, who signed a 5-year, 31 million dollar deal last off-season that looks like an absolute bargain right now. Tate graded out 16th among wide receivers in pass catching grade and caught 99 passes on 136 targets (72.8%) for 1331 yards and 4 touchdowns on 626 routes run, an average of 2.13 yards per route run. He was especially productive when Johnson was out, as Tate routinely beat double coverage to give Stafford at least one option to throw to with Megatron injured. He caught 39 passes for 599 yards and 3 touchdowns in those 5 games. He wasn’t bad in the other 11 games though, catching 60 passes for 732 yards and 1 touchdown, 87 catches for 1065 yards and 1 touchdown over 16 games.

That came as a surprise to a lot of people, as he never had even a 1000+ yard season in his career prior to 2014, but that was because his numbers were kept down by a run heavy offense in Seattle. He averaged 1.80 yards per route run in 2012 and 2.01 yards per route run in 2013, so his 2.13 yards per route run average in 2013 was barely a career high. He also graded out 16th in pass catching grade on Pro Football Focus in 2012 and 16th in 2013. He didn’t suddenly become better last season and he’s not a one-year wonder. He’s just finally in a good offense for him. His numbers could take a hit this season with Johnson healthy and stealing targets, but he still produced at a high level with Johnson out last season. He’ll see plenty of single coverage opposite Johnson and should finish in the 1000-1200 yard range. Johnson and Tate are arguably the best wide receiver duo in the NFL.

  1. OT Sebastian Vollmer (New England)

Last year: 163

Right tackle Sebastian Vollmer was the Patriots’ most reliable offensive lineman last season. He made all 15 starts that mattered (he sat for the Patriots’ week 17 contest when they had the #1 seed locked up), graded out as Pro Football Focus’ 11th ranked offensive tackle, and was the Patriots’ only offensive lineman to play a snap and grade out above average in both pass protection and run blocking. This is nothing new for him, as he graded out 8th, 17th, 19th, 14th, and 21st respectively in 5 seasons from 2009-2013, but what was new for him is that he didn’t get hurt, after missing 22 games with injury in his first 6 seasons in the league combined (after going in the 2nd round in 2009). He’s hard to trust injury wise, especially going into his age 31 season in 2015, but he should remain one of the best right tackles in the game when healthy.

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Top-200 NFL Players: 126-150 (2015)

1-25 26-50 51-75 76-100 101-125 126-150 151-175 176-200

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.

  1. 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.

  1. 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.

  1. 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.

  1. 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.

  1. 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.

  1. 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.

  1. 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.

  1. 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.

  1. 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.

  1. 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.

  1. 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.

  1. 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.

  1. 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.

  1. 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.

  1. 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.

  1. 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.

  1. 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.

  1. 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.

  1. 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.

  1. 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.

  1. 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.

  1. 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.

  1. 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.

  1. 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.

  1. 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.

Top-200 NFL Players: 151-175 (2015)

1-25 26-50 51-75 76-100 101-125 126-150 151-175 176-200

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.

  1. OLB Sean Lee (Dallas)

Last year: NA

Sean Lee is returning from a torn ACL that cost him all of last season. With Rolando McClain establishing himself at middle linebacker in Lee’s absence, Lee will play outside for the Cowboys this season, provided he can stay healthy. Lee has injury issues that date back to his collegiate days at Penn State, has never played all 16 games in a season in 5 years in the league, and has missed 31 games with injuries over the past 3 seasons, including, of course, all of last season.

However, he’s never graded out below average in his career and was Pro Football Focus’ 14th ranked middle linebacker in 2011, 2nd ranked before injury in 2012 (6 games), and 1st ranked before injury in 2013 (9 games). Only going into his age 29 season, Lee should still be able to play at a high level in 2015, provided he can stay on the field. He’s never played outside linebacker in his career, but the 6-2 236 pounder has a good skill set to play every down out there.

  1. DE Everson Griffen (Minnesota)

Last year: NA

The Vikings gave Griffen a 5-year, 42.5 million dollar contract ahead of free agency last off-season, keeping their 2010 4th round pick long-term. It was a risky move because Griffen was largely unproven, but he broke out in 2014 in his first season as an every down player, grading out 8th among 4-3 defensive ends. It still was a weird move for three reasons. One, it’s unclear who else would have paid him that much. Second, he never graded out better than 20th among 4-3 defensive ends in the first 4 years of his career, from 2010-2013. Part of that had to do with lack of playing time, but he only graded out above average in 2 of those 4 seasons and, in that season he ranked 20th, he actually played 717 snaps, so it wasn’t like he didn’t have any chances. And third, Griffen is still unlikely to exceed the value of that contract long-term, even if he does play well, so it’s a contract with much more downside than upside. All that being said, with full hindsight, the move does appear to have been the right one.

  1. MLB Derrick Johnson (Kansas City)

Last year: 25

Derrick Johnson is going into his age 33 season coming off of a torn Achilles, which is concerning, but he was so good before the injury that he should still be an asset for them inside. Johnson was a top-5 middle linebacker on Pro Football Focus in every season from 2010-2013. Even in 2009, the last season he was outside of the top-5, he graded out 8th and did it on 344 snaps. Todd Haley did a lot of things wrong in Kansas City, but his biggest success was his ability to bring the most out of Johnson, a 2005 1st round pick, with discipline and toughness. Haley benched Johnson during 2009 for a variety of reasons and that served as a much needed wakeup call.

  1. DT Tyrone Crawford (Dallas)

Last year: NA

The Cowboys’ defense exceeded expectations in 2014 thanks to breakout years from several players. The biggest breakout year was by Tyrone Crawford, who graded out as Pro Football Focus’ 13th ranked defensive tackle after starting the first 3 games of the season at defensive end. The 6-4 285 pounder “tweener” is a great fit as a one gap penetrator inside in Rod Marinelli’s defense. He’s a one year wonder, after struggling on 303 snaps as a 3rd round rookie in 2012 and then missing all of 2013 with injury, but he could easily have another strong year inside for the Cowboys in 2015, which would set him up for a big payday as a free agent next off-season. He’s not very good against the run, but he’s a nightmare for opponents’ interior offensive linemen as a pass rusher.

  1. OLB KJ Wright (Seattle)

Last year: NA

KJ Wright and his accomplishments get lost on Seattle’s amazing defense, but he’s still been a great player for them since they drafted him in the 4th round in 2011. Wright has graded out above average in all 4 seasons he’s been in the league, ranking 17th, 14th, 13th, and 6th in 2011-2014 respectively and missing just 4 games with injury. Wright took his game to the next level in 2014 and earned a 4-year, 27 million dollar deal ahead of free agency this off-season and his age 26 season in 2015.

  1. CB Patrick Peterson (Arizona)

Last year: 43

Peterson is believed by many to be one of the top cornerbacks in the NFL, up there with Darrelle Revis and Richard Sherman, but he certainly didn’t play that well last season, grading out below average and finishing 3rd in touchdowns allowed (8) and 4th in penalties committed (13) among cornerbacks. Peterson says last year’s struggles were the result of undiagnosed diabetes, which makes a lot of sense. He says he has it under control right now, something he’ll have to prove on the field. Only going into his age 25 season, having graded out 16th and 14th among cornerbacks in 2012 and 2013 respectively, Peterson’s bounce back chances are good.

  1. OT Donald Penn (Oakland)

Last year: NA

The Raiders signed Donald Penn to a 2-year, 9.6 million dollar deal last off-season, after he was cut by the Buccaneers, and he had a great year, grading out 7th among offensive tackles. Penn has graded out above average in 4 straight seasons on Pro Football Focus, but appeared to be on the decline in 2013, grading out 32nd, which is why the Buccaneers cut him and replaced him with the younger Anthony Collins. The Buccaneers’ loss was the Raiders’ gain. Penn is going into his age 32 season and has a history of weight problems so I don’t expect him to play quite as well as he did last season, which was arguably the best season of his career, but he should once again be a strong blindside protector.

  1. WR DeSean Jackson (Washington)

Last year: 164

DeSean Jackson put up good numbers last season, catching 56 passes for 1169 yards and 6 touchdowns. He’s never been consistently as good as he was in 2013 with the Eagles, when he graded out 8th among wide receivers and caught 82 passes for 1332 yards and 9 touchdowns, but he’s graded out above average in 3 straight seasons and has surpassed 1000+ yards 4 times in 7 seasons in the league since being drafted in the 2nd round by the Eagles in 2008.

  1. OLB Trent Cole (Indianapolis)

Last year: 96

Colts signed Trent Cole to a 2-year, 14 million dollar deal this off-season, after the Eagles cut him to avoid paying him a non-guaranteed 10.025 million dollar salary for 2015. Cole was still playing at a high level last season and has a good chance to continue at least solid play this season. Cole has still graded out above average in every season of Pro Football Focus’ 8-year existence, including 7th among 3-4 outside linebackers in 2013 and 19th in 2014. He’s going into his age 33 season, but he could still be the best edge rusher on a team that really needed help there.

  1. QB Ryan Tannehill (Miami)

Last year: NA

Tannehill has gotten better statistically in every year of his career, going from a quarterback rating of 76.1 as a rookie to 81.7 in 2013 and then 92.8 last season. He finished 2014 having completed 66.4% of his passes for an average of 6.86 yards per attempt, 27 touchdowns, and 12 interceptions.  On the season, he graded out as Pro Football Focus’ 11th ranked quarterback. He finished 5th in completion percentage, had a strong TD:INT ratio, with his only subpar area being his YPA average. In his career, he’s been below 7 YPA in every season, including last year.

However, I’m not worried about that for two reasons. One, he wasn’t necessarily inaccurate downfield. The offense just called for him to throw a lot of shorter passes, likely because the Dolphins surprisingly ranked 2nd the NFL in yards per carry (4.69 YPC). Tannehill completed 58.6% of his passes between 10-19 yards downfield, which is better than league average, and, while he only completed 30.2% of his passes 20+ yards downfield, he ranked 22nd out of 38 eligible in accuracy (completions + drops/attempts) 20+ yards downfield, so he wasn’t necessarily bad in that aspect of the game.

Second, I find completion percentage to be a more important stat than anything, as high completion percentage often correlates with your offense regularly being on schedule. I realize that Tannehill’s completion percentage is inflated by the types of passes he was attempting and that he owes a lot of that high number to his running game making things easier for him, but the Dolphins finished 8th in the NFL in rate of moving the chains last season, moving them at a 75.33% rate.

Tannehill doesn’t deserve all the credit for that, but he deserves some, especially as he was dealing with poor offensive line play and an average at best receiving corps. Tannehill also contributed to that strong running game, rushing for 311 yards and 1 touchdown on 56 attempts (5.55 YPC). Besides, while the Dolphins ran well on a per play average, they didn’t run that often overall. Including pass attempts, sacks, and quarterback carries, Tannehill was involved on 66.5% of the Dolphins offensive plays last season, one of the highest usage rates in the NFL.

He hasn’t really had much help on offense, but the 2012 8th overall pick has graded out above average in all 3 seasons he’s been in the NFL, completing 61.9% of his passes for an average of 6.77 YPA, 63 touchdowns, and 42 interceptions, while rushing for 760 yards and another 4 touchdowns on 145 carries (5.24 YPC). The Dolphins gave him a 4-year, 74 million dollar extension this off-season and I think he was worth it. Right now, there are 20 quarterbacks in the NFL, including Tannehill, whose contracts have an average salary of 12+ million dollars. Excluding guys on rookie deals, only one other player makes more than 5.25 million annually on his contract. There isn’t a middle ground with quarterbacks in today’s NFL. Right now, I’d say Tannehill is one of the top 10-15 quarterbacks in the NFL with the potential to get even better, going into his 4th year in the league, his age 27 season, so the deal makes sense.

  1. DE Carlos Dunlap (Cincinnati)

Last year: 85

Dunlap, a 2010 2nd round pick, has been a consistently solid player throughout his career, grading out above average in all 5 seasons of his career. As a rookie in 2010, he graded out 21st on 287 snaps as a rotational player and then he graded out 4th, 9th, 8th, and 15th in 2011, 2012, 2013, and 2014 respectively. The Bengals gave him a 6-year, 40 million dollar deal two off-seasons ago even though he only had 2 career starts and it’s proven to be well worth it as he’s translated well from a talented backup to a strong starter. He’s only the 11th highest paid 4-3 defensive end in the NFL in terms of average annual salary.

  1. CB Casey Hayward (Green Bay)

Last year: NA

Casey Hayward should be the starter this year, after making just 9 starts in his first 3 seasons in the league. The 2012 2nd round pick graded out 4th among cornerbacks on 703 snaps (7 starts) as a rookie and some (including me) thought he should have been Defensive Rookie of the Year. However, he missed 13 games with injury in 2013 and fell down the depth chart, playing just 435 snaps in 2014, as the 4th cornerback. He still graded out 9th among cornerbacks on those 435 snaps though, making it 2 times in 3 years that no one has played fewer snaps and graded out better at the position than Heyward. Even in the season he largely missed with injury, he graded out above average. An every down starting job is long overdue and it looks like he’ll get his chance in 2015, which could lead to a big-time breakout year and an expensive contract next off-season.

  1. MLB Brandon Marshall (Denver)

Last year: NA

Brandon Marshall had a breakout year for the Broncos last year, grading out as Pro Football Focus’ 4th ranked 4-3 outside linebacker. He’s a one-year wonder as the 2012 5th rounder played a combined 15 snaps in his first 2 seasons in the NFL and he’s also coming off of a significant injury, as his breakout season was ended prematurely by a Lisfranc injury, a big part of the reason why the Broncos’ season fell apart. Marshall missed most of the off-season, but is now healthy for week 1. He’ll move inside to middle linebacker in the Broncos’ new 3-4 defense.

  1. DE Jason Hatcher (Washington)

Last year: 109

Hatcher was a great value on a 4-year, 27 million dollar deal last off-season. The 2006 3rd round pick has been a late bloomer, but has graded out above average in 6 straight seasons, including the last 4 as a starter. Over those past 4 seasons, he’s graded out 6th among 3-4 defensive ends (2011), 4th among 3-4 defensive ends (2012), 8th among defensive tackles (2013), and then 10th among 3-4 defensive ends last season, in his first year in Washington. He’s going into his age 33 season, which is a concern, but he could still have a strong season in 2015. He’s yet to really show any decline.

  1. WR Keenan Allen (San Diego)

Last year: 80

Allen fell to the 3rdround in 2013 as a result of a bad ankle and a slow 40 time, but he shocked everyone as a rookie, catching 71 passes for 1046 yards and 8 touchdowns, despite struggling to get playing time early in the season. He finished his rookie year 10th among wide receivers on Pro Football Focus and finished 2nd for the Offensive Rookie of the Year award behind Eddie Lacy. Allen was just one of 11 wide receivers to have 1000+ yards as a rookie over the past 20 seasons and just one of 3 who weren’t first round picks.

Allen wasn’t quite as good in 2014, catching 77 passes for 783 yards and 4 touchdowns, missing 2 games with injuries and being limited in others, but he still graded out above average and is a solid bet to bounce back in 2015. However, I don’t think he has the upside of some of the other guys who had 1000+ yard seasons as a rookie (including the likes of Odell Beckham, Randy Moss, AJ Green, and Joey Galloway). There’s still a reason he fell to the 3rd round, as he lacks top end speed and athleticism and is fairly injury prone. When I think of a career trajectory for him, I think he’ll have a career more in line with Anquan Boldin or Marques Colston, the other two non-first round picks to have 1000+ yards as a rookie. He’s a big asset in the passing game, but he’s quite not one of the top receivers in the NFL.

  1. CB Jimmy Smith (Baltimore)

Last year: NA

In 2014, Jimmy Smith graded out as Pro Football Focus’ 20th ranked cornerback despite missing the final 8 games of the season on injured reserve with a foot injury. Through the first 7 games of the season before getting hurt, he was Pro Football Focus’ 10th ranked cornerback, including 4th in pure coverage grade, allowing 51.3% completion and 4.18 yards per attempt on 39 attempts. It remains to be seen whether or not he can be that dominant of a cornerback for a whole season, but the Ravens clearly believe he can, giving him a 4-year, 41 million dollar extension this off-season.

It’s a risky deal that doesn’t appear to have much upside. It makes him one of the highest paid cornerbacks in the NFL and he is unlikely to exceed that contract value, even if he does continue playing well. The problem is his play last season before getting hurt is inconsistent with his past history, as he was Pro Football Focus’ 2nd worst ranked cornerback in 2012 and their 35th ranked cornerback in 2013. The good news is that he’s a former 1st round pick (2011), who has improved in every season as a starter and could easily have a strong, full season in his age 27 season in 2015. Either way, there’s no question his return will improve Baltimore’s secondary, as long as he doesn’t get hurt again (he’s missed 17 games in 4 seasons in the league).

  1. OT Zach Strief (New Orleans)

Last year: 187

A late bloomer who didn’t become a full-time starter since 2011, Strief, a 2006 7th round pick, has made 54 starts over the past 4 seasons and graded out above average in 3 of those 4 seasons, excluding an injury plagued 2012 season. He hasn’t just graded out above average; he’s excelled, grading out 12th among offensive tackles in 2011, 9th in 2013, and 17th last season. His age is starting to become a concern, as he goes into his age 32 season, but he’s much more the solution than the problem upfront for the Saints and one of the best right tackles in the game. The Saints drafted his long-term replacement in the first round in 2015, Andrus Peat, but Strief was able to easily hold him off for the starting job, forcing Peat to see action at left guard instead.

  1. OLB Brian Orakpo (Tennessee)

Last year: 68

Orakpo was Pro Football Focus’ 4th ranked 3-4 outside linebacker in 2013 and was franchised tagged by the Redskins as a result. However, Orakpo ended up missing 9 games with a torn pectoral in 2014, the 3rd time in his career that he’s torn his pectoral. He hit free agency again having missed 24 of 48 games over the past 3 seasons with torn pectorals, but still got a 4-year, 31 million dollar deal from the Tennessee Titans. He’s very talented when he’s on the field though. In addition to his strong 2013, the 2009 1st round pick also ranked 7th at his position in 2011. He’s an obvious injury risk, but he has a huge upside, still only going into his age 29 season.

  1. S Antoine Bethea (San Francisco)

Last year: NA

Antoine Bethea was one of the few bright spots for the 49ers in 2014. The veteran looked like he was on the decline last off-season, grading out below average in both 2012 and 2013, after grading out above average from 2007-2011. Bethea proved he still had something left in the tank though last season, grading out as Pro Football Focus’ 7th ranked safety. His age is a concern as he goes into his age 31 season, but he should be dependable again and he hasn’t missed a start in 7 years, since 2007.

  1. DE Stephen Paea (Washington)

Last year: NA

Needing to fix their defense, the Redskins signed several veteran starters as free agents this off-season, including Stephen Paea, who got 21 million over 4 years. Paea comes over from Chicago, where he was Pro Football Focus’ 11th ranked defensive tackle in 2014. He’s a one-year wonder because he graded out below average in each of his first 3 seasons in the NFL from 2011-2013, after the Bears took him in the 2nd round in 2011, but he was a very solid value as a free agent and he has a good chance to have another strong year in 2015. He’ll move to defensive end in Washington’s 3-4. He wouldn’t seem to be a great scheme fit at 6-1 303, but he should be an immediate and noticeable upgrade on the Redskins’ defensive line.

  1. OLB Terrell Suggs (Baltimore)

Last year: 150

Terrell Suggs is getting up there in age, going into his age 33 season. However, Suggs is also coming off of a dominant year and has a good chance to have another strong year. Suggs was Pro Football Focus’ 4th ranked 3-4 outside linebacker in 2014, which is pretty par for the course for him. He ranked 9th among 3-4 outside linebackers in 2013, 3rd among 4-3 defensive ends in 2011, and 8th among 4-3 defensive ends in 2010, with an injury plagued 2012 season in between.

  1. G Brandon Linder (Jacksonville)

Last year: NA

A 2014 3rd round pick, Brandon Linder proved to be a steal during a very strong rookie season, grading out 10th among guards, making him one of the few bright spots in an otherwise dismal 2014 season for the Jaguars. He’s still a one-year wonder, but he’s one of the few young building blocks the Jaguars have on either side of the ball.

  1. MLB Daryl Smith (Baltimore)

Last year: NA

Daryl Smith is another one of the cheap, smart free agent signings that Ozzie Newsome has made over the past few off-seasons. Smith came cheap two off-seasons ago because he was limited to 2 games by injury in 2012 and because he was going into his 30s. However, Smith was a dominant player before the injury, grading out 1st, 8th, and 2nd among 4-3 outside linebackers in 2009, 2010, and 2011. Smith has basically picked up where he left off before the injury since joining the Ravens and moving inside in their 3-4. Ray Lewis’ replacement, Smith looked like a steal on a cheap one-year deal in 2013, grading out 14th among middle linebackers and earning a 4-year, 16.1 million deal last off-season. Smith continued to be a value for the Ravens in 2014, grading out 7th at his position in 2014. Like Suggs, he’s going into his age 33 season so it’s fair to wonder how long he can keep this up, but he should have another solid year in him.

  1. OT Anthony Castonzo (Indianapolis)

Last year: 199

The Colts drafted Anthony Castonzo in the 1st round in 2011 and he has made 60 of 64 starts at left tackle in 4 seasons in the league. One of the few bright spots on Andrew Luck’s offensive line, he has graded out above average in each of the last 3 seasons. In 2012, 2013, and 2014 respectively, he ranked 36th, 27th, and 12thamong offensive tackles and should have a similar season in 2015. Headed into the final year of his rookie deal, Castonzo will make 7.4 million this season after having his 5th year option picked up and is definitely a candidate for a lucrative long-term extension.

  1. MLB Lawrence Timmons (Pittsburgh)

Last year: NA

Lawrence Timmons has played in 126 of 128 games since being drafted in the 1st round in 2007 and has generally been a very solid player, grading out above average in 6 of the last 7 seasons, including four top-10 finishes among middle linebackers on Pro Football Focus and three top-5 finishes. Last season, he graded out 11th and, only going into his age 29 season, he should have another solid season in 2015. Behind Cameron Heyward, he’s their best defensive player and arguably one of just three (Brandon Boykin) above average starters on a Steeler defense that is far from what it used to be.

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