On Wednesday, I began my effort to improve on the Top 100 list compiled by NFL players by starting a list of my own. Beginning with DeMarco Murray and finishing with Aqib Talib, I worked my way through players 100-61. Now comes the other 60. J.J. Watt was a surprise pick as the players’ top choice; will he be no. 1 on this list, too? (Just don’t scroll down.)
As a reminder, these rankings are designed to vaguely emulate a fantasy draft of all veterans for the 2015 season. Contracts do not matter. Players are evaluated by a combination of past performance, expected aging/injury curves, and relative positional value from team spending. In other words, left tackles are worth more than middle linebackers.
The Top 60
60. Khalil Mack, LB, Raiders (49th on NFL Top 100)
(GIF courtesy of a great Mack breakdown from Battle Red Blog, which couldn’t have appreciated Mack working star Texans left tackle Duane Brown like that.)
59. T.Y. Hilton, WR, Colts (35)
Hilton is Colts general manager Ryan Grigson’s best draft pick. He’s not Grigson’s most productive or valuable draft pick, obviously, but when Grigson took the job, he had the first overall pick and Andrew Luck sitting in the draft pool. That’s a layup. Two rounds later, after drafting a pair of tight ends in Dwayne Allen and Coby Fleener, Grigson gave the 49ers a fifth-rounder to move up from 97 to 92 and grab Hilton, who was supposed to be limited to deep routes as a downfield burner who couldn’t get off the line of scrimmage. It turns out that’s still a really valuable skill: Hilton caught 52.3 percent of the “deep” passes thrown to him last year (16-plus air yards), a figure only topped by Antonio Brown and Julio Jones among receivers with a minimum of 30 targets on those throws.
58. Adrian Peterson, RB, Vikings (62)
The Vikings team Peterson suited up for during his only game of 2014 really doesn’t resemble the one he’ll play with this season. That was a passing attack with Matt Cassel attempting to throw vaguely in the direction of Cordarrelle Patterson and Greg Jennings. After Peterson’s quasi-suspension, the Vikings installed a conservative, ball-control attack for Teddy Bridgewater, integrated Charles Johnson and Jarius Wright into the lineup, and then traded for Mike Wallace this offseason. Norv Turner has traditionally built his offense around a workhorse back and getting the ball downfield when defenses overreact to the threat of the run; here, with (perhaps overwrought) concerns about Bridgewater’s arm strength, the logic might go backward. Turner might need to prove that Bridgewater can hit Wallace downfield before holes start appearing for the returning Peterson.
57. Terrell Suggs, LB, Ravens (84)
Suggs improved from 10 sacks to 12 and produced one of the more incredible interceptions you’ll ever see to basically seal Baltimore’s playoff win over Pittsburgh, but he somehow dropped 58 spots in the players’ cumulative rankings from 2014. Given that he entered the league at just 21 years old, Suggs has accrued some impressive numbers. He’s produced 106.5 sacks through his age-32 campaign, which is the 15th-highest total by 32 since the league started recording sacks as an official stat. He’s basically recovered from his torn Achilles in 2012 like nothing ever happened; if he keeps this up for a few more seasons, Suggs is going to have a legitimate Hall of Fame case.
56. Eric Weddle, S, Chargers (86)
55. Kam Chancellor, S, Seahawks (41)
Context is everything. Chancellor’s spent the past three seasons playing in what will arguably go down as the best secondary in league history, flanked by the best cornerback and best safety in football. There have been moments over that same time frame when Weddle was the only person in San Diego’s secondary who deserved to be paid for his performance on Sundays. They each have flaws — Weddle can get overrun by bigger players in the running game, and the Patriots took advantage of Chancellor’s issues in coverage in the Super Bowl — but they’re each valuable players in their own right. It would be fun, in fact, to see them switch teams for a year.
54. Ryan Kerrigan, LB, Washington (78)
Look past the 13.5 sacks in 2014 and you see a well-rounded, hyper-valuable defensive weapon. Kerrigan was sixth in the league in tackles for loss (18) and forced a league-high five fumbles. That can be fluky for some players, but it’s been a consistent skill for Kerrigan. Since he joined the league in 2011, the only player who has managed to force more fumbles than Washington’s star linebacker (15) is Peanut Tillman (17). If you’re almost as good at anything as Charles Tillman is at forcing fumbles, you’re doing something right.
53. Joe Staley, T, 49ers (NR)
Saying he’s a better trade asset than player isn’t a reflection on Staley’s performance but instead just an acknowledgement of how incredible his contract is, even after the 49ers renegotiated this deal last year. Staley’s average cap hit from 2012 through 2014 — when he was arguably one of the NFL’s five best left tackles — was $2.9 million. $2.9 million! Even with Staley’s cap hit more than doubling to $7.6 million this year, he has just the 12th-highest cap hold for a left tackle. William Beatty has a larger cap hit than Joe Staley. Football is a fun game.
52. Duane Brown, T, Texans (NR)
I have to admit I feel a little bad for sneaking a clip of Brown being clowned by Mack into the list a little earlier. Stats LLC credited Brown with just three sacks allowed in 16 games last year, which is pretty impressive for a guy who was blocking for four different quarterbacks last season, only one of whom was particularly mobile. Brown also had just two false starts and went the entire season without a holding penalty.
51. Desmond Trufant, CB, Falcons (NR)
Atlanta’s pass rush was mostly theoretical last year; it pressured opposing quarterbacks on just 22.8 percent of dropbacks, the fourth-worst rate in football. That makes it awful hard on your cornerbacks to hold up, which is why what Trufant did was so impressive. Stuck on the opposing team’s top wideout the vast majority of the time, Trufant was the biggest reason Atlanta had the eighth-best DVOA against no. 1 receivers last year. It was 28th against no. 2 wideouts and 27th against all other wide receivers. Trufant is still flying under the radar, but if Atlanta’s defense bounces back under Dan Quinn this season, you’re going to read articles about how Trufant helped the Falcons by emerging as a true no. 1 cornerback. Ignore them, because he already has.
50. Bobby Wagner, LB, Seahawks (69)
No, regardless of what Tony Dungy thinks, Wagner wasn’t the most valuable player in football last year. The improvement the Seattle defense made when he returned from injury in Week 12 — 21.5 points allowed per game before, an unholy 6.5 points per game allowed afterward — assuredly overstates his impact.1 The Patriots isolated him with Shane Vereen in the Super Bowl and won far too frequently. You know what? All that is true and Wagner’s still great. He recovered enough in Arizona to pick off a Tom Brady pass, and his range as a coverage linebacker is about as close to Brian Urlacher as anybody west of Carolina gets. He’s the fourth-best player on his own defense, but he would probably be the best player on about a half-dozen others.
Allowing only 6.5 points per game is incredible, but it also came against Drew Stanton, Mark Sanchez, Ryan Lindley, Shaun Hill, and the desiccated shell of Colin Kaepernick (twice).
49. Joe Flacco, QB, Ravens (97)
Gary Kubiak and the return of the Baltimore running game did wonders for Flacco; his rate statistics (completion percentage, yards per attempt, sack rate, passer rating, QBR) all improved dramatically from a very disappointing 2013. He gets his third offensive coordinator in three years with Marc Trestman arriving in town, but Trestman expects to stick with Kubiak’s scheme.
The one change I suspect Trestman will make is putting Flacco in the shotgun. Kubiak had the Ravens in the shotgun for just 238 offensive snaps last year, the lowest figure in football by a significant margin.2 Chicago, meanwhile, took 721 snaps out of the shotgun under Trestman, the seventh-highest figure in football. It wouldn’t be a bad idea, either; Flacco was 12th in QBR in 2014, but he had the league’s seventh-highest QBR when he did go to the shotgun.
Cleveland, ranked 31st, took 410 snaps out of the shotgun and the pistol in 2014.
48. Harrison Smith, S, Vikings (NR)
Smith is a wonderful football player who I cannot stand. It’s not his fault at all, but whenever I see his name, I remember that the family in the “Bengals Babies” commercial was buying his jersey, and then I think of that commercial, and then I want to think about anything else. Sorry, Harrison Smith. You deserve a better commercial.
47. Patrick Peterson, CB, Cardinals (19)
I’m as big a Patrick Peterson fan as anyone, but 2014 was a disappointing season for Arizona’s star cornerback. The Cardinals took him off punt-return duties after signing him to a lucrative contract extension, which was smart, but it also removed a way for Peterson to contribute to the team. He wasn’t responsible for the 226-yard bomb Demaryius Thomas laid on the Cardinals, as that was mostly Antonio Cromartie’s handiwork, but Peterson’s early-season struggles were noticeable, even as Arizona’s defense continued to play at a high level. An ankle injury couldn’t have helped, but Peterson also revealed after the season that he had been diagnosed with diabetes. With Peterson’s blood sugar now under control, he expects to play better in 2015.
46. Devin McCourty, S, Patriots (NR)
The degree of difficulty gets ratcheted up for McCourty this year, as Darrelle Revis, Brandon Browner, and Kyle Arrington have been replaced by 2013’s most conspicuously bad cornerback (Derek Cox), 2014’s most conspicuously bad cornerback (Bradley Fletcher), and one of the league’s worst slot corners over that time frame (Robert McClain).3 When things were going well last year, McCourty basically got to sit back in center field in Cover 1 and let two of the league’s better cornerbacks funnel routes into his zones. This year won’t be quite as easy, but that’s not going to be McCourty’s fault. In fact, there’s a decent chance he’s the best cornerback on New England’s roster, even if he won’t play the position in 2015.
I don’t expect all three of those guys to make the roster, but if you want to sub somebody like seventh-rounder Darryl Roberts or practice-squad journeyman Justin Green into those slots, the point should still remain the same.
45. Connor Barwin, LB, Eagles (58)
It would be unrealistic to expect Barwin to rack up 14.5 sacks again, but it’s worth noting just how valuable and versatile he is. In 2013, Barwin basically served as a cover linebacker and performed admirably, most notably when he knocked a fourth-and-1 pass attempt away to preserve a one-point lead in the fourth quarter against Dallas in Week 17’s de facto playoff game.
In 2014, with Trent Cole taking a step backward, Barwin rushed the passer more frequently and delivered a monster season, finishing fourth in sacks (14.5) and seventh in quarterback knockdowns (35.5). There are linebackers who can hold up in coverage and edge rushers who can get off the line and attack the opposing quarterback. You can count the number of guys who can do both of those things at a high level in consecutive NFL seasons and stop before you get to double digits.
44. Eli Manning, QB, Giants (NR)
If you look at Manning’s QBR from the past five seasons, 2014 looks like a return to form after an aberration in 2013:
Since taking a sudden leap forward during the 2007 playoff run, Manning has ranked between ninth and 12th in QBR six times in seven years. He’s a low-ceiling, high-floor quarterback who throws you out of one or two games a year with interceptions and keeps you well above water in the other 14. There are about 15 teams in the league that would kill for that right about now.
43. Michael Bennett, DE, Seahawks (90)
The only players with more quarterback hits than Bennett over the past two seasons are J.J. Watt, Carlos Dunlap, and Robert Quinn. Granted, Watt nearly has as many (97) as Quinn and Bennett combined (99), but it’s unfair to compare Watt to mere mortals. Bennett wreaked havoc on the interior during the first half of the Super Bowl for the second consecutive season; he would have been a viable MVP pick in 2013 and should have been in the running for a nod last year if the Seahawks had been able to hold on.
42. Marshawn Lynch, RB, Seahawks (9)
Lynch has 48 rushing touchdowns over the past four seasons. Nobody else has more than 34 over the same time frame. That’s not entirely based on what he’s done near the goal line, but it’s also fair to say he’s been a dominant back once the Seahawks have gotten there. Over the past four seasons, given the leaguewide touchdown conversion rates inside the 5-yard line, Lynch has been more than six touchdowns better than league average:
|Yard Line||TDs||Atts||League Rate||Exp TDs||Diff|
41. Marshal Yanda, G, Ravens (79)
Yanda was the lone guard on the players’ list, and despite Baltimore going from 3.1 yards per carry in 2013 to 4.5 last year, Yanda dropped by 24 spots from his ranking the previous year. Go figure. When discussing Yanda’s impending free agency, the Baltimore Sun noted that Yanda was “certainly not a man of extravagance.” Are there any guards who are men of extravagance? Any guards who look down on a blue-collar work ethic and show up to work on a PhunkeeDuck? I need to ask Robert Mays about this. He would know.
40. Andrew Whitworth, T, Bengals (NR)
As Andre Smith flailed through a horrific season on the right side before undergoing surgery, Whitworth moved back to left tackle and quietly had what might have been his best season as a pro. Stats LLC credited Whitworth with allowing just one half-sack, and the 33-year-old finished with just one false start and zero holding penalties. The Bengals drafted offensive tackles with each of their first two picks in this year’s draft, which seems to suggest that the impending free agent will be moving on after 2015. Whitworth may end up moving to guard, but he doesn’t appear to be slowing down very much at tackle.
39. Marcell Dareus, DT, Bills (53)
38. Muhammad Wilkerson, DE, Jets (74)
Two years ago, I wrote about the defensive Class of 2011 and how it looked like the best crop of defensive talent through its first two seasons in league history. You know what? They haven’t slowed down very much. You could make two dominant defenses from that group and still have players left over. Four years later, here’s the first- and second-team All-2011 draft defense:
|Pos||First Team||Draft Team||Second Team||Draft Team|
|DL||J.J. Watt||Texans||Cameron Jordan||Saints|
|DL||Marcell Dareus||Bills||Nick Fairley||Lions|
|DL||Muhammad Wilkerson||Jets||Jurrell Casey||Titans|
|LB||Justin Houston||Chiefs||Ryan Kerrigan||Washington|
|LB||Von Miller||Broncos||Pernell McPhee||Ravens|
|LB||K.J. Wright||Seahawks||Nate Irving||Broncos|
|LB||Robert Quinn||Rams||Aldon Smith||49ers|
|CB||Patrick Peterson||Cardinals||Chris Harris||Undrafted; signed by Broncos|
|CB||Richard Sherman||Seahawks||Jimmy Smith||Ravens|
|S||Rahim Moore||Broncos||Jaiquawn Jarrett||Eagles|
|S||Da’Norris Searcy||Bills||Chris Conte||Bears|
OK, the safeties aren’t great. We could probably move Chris Harris to safety and take out Da’Norris Searcy and be fine. And we also have to push Von freaking Miller inside because he’s not a good enough pass-rusher to beat out our edge-rushing combination of Justin Houston and Robert Quinn. We’ll be OK. This is downright insane, and there are another dozen guys4 who would be above-average contributors coming off the bench. Byron Maxwell doesn’t make the second team and he just got $25 million guaranteed.
Corey Liuget, Cameron Heyward, Prince Amukamara, Chris Culliver, Byron Maxwell, Brooks Reed, Jabaal Sheard, Karl Klug, Stephen Paea, Akeem Ayers, Mason Foster, Malcolm Smith …
By the way, something that is sadly true: The Dolphins didn’t take a defensive player until the 231st pick of this draft. Jeff Ireland, everyone!
37. Matt Ryan, QB, Falcons (77)
It’ll be really interesting to see how Ryan adapts to his latest offensive coordinator this offseason. Ryan’s completion percentage spiked after Dirk Koetter arrived in 2012, as it was 60.9 percent before Koetter came to town and 67.4 percent since, without any notable change in his other rate statistics. With Koetter in Tampa, Ryan now gets Kyle Shanahan, who has spent the past two seasons working with an injured Robert Griffin, Kirk Cousins, Josh McCown, and Johnny Manziel. You know the feeling you have when you drive a really beat-up car for a while and then get behind the wheel of a new one? That’s Kyle Shanahan in 2015.
36. Odell Beckham, WR, Giants (32)
More on ODB in the weeks to come. Nobody inspired more wild gesticulating and shouting in our NFL summer meetings than Mr. Beckham. I’ll leave it at that.
35. Luke Kuechly, LB, Panthers (14)
This is about as high as a middle linebacker can be for me; it has nothing to do with Kuechly, who is a phenomenal football player, but just the sheer fact the league basically doesn’t value middle linebackers. I mean, nobody’s surprised that Kuechly is this good — his pre-draft scouting report lists his weaknesses as tackling too much and being a subpar pass-rusher, of all things — and he still fell to ninth in the 2012 draft because teams simply don’t think it’s worth taking an interior linebacker that high. Granted, I think Kuechly would probably go second ahead of Trent Richardson, Justin Blackmon, Morris Claiborne, and Mark Barron pretty comfortably in a re-draft, but you get the point. Or, if you’re a Panthers fan who didn’t read this paragraph, you yell.
34. Jordy Nelson, WR, Packers (18)
33. Demaryius Thomas, WR, Broncos (20)
Thomas is ahead of Nelson because he’s actually been an established no. 1 receiver for longer despite coming into the league two years later. Nelson was basically on the same tier in terms of targets with Greg Jennings and Jermichael Finley in 2011 and was actually fourth on the Packers in targets per game (behind Jennings, Randall Cobb, and James Jones) during an abbreviated 2012. Nelson really has been the unquestioned top receiver in Green Bay only the past two seasons, while Thomas has been the man in Denver for three years now. They’re both great, but Thomas is just the tiniest bit ahead.
32. Josh Sitton, G, Packers (NR)
You know who is also great? Sitton, who is at worst the third-best guard in football and hasn’t sniffed a Top 100 list from his peers. You should read Mays’s ode to the Green Bay offensive line if you haven’t already, but Sitton’s the highest-ranked player on my list who didn’t make it onto the players’ Top 100.
31. Lavonte David, LB, Buccaneers (56)
He’s quite possibly the most underrated player in football, since the biggest moment of his career was that very questionable personal-foul penalty that cost the Buccaneers a game against the Jets in Week 1 of 2013. David led all outside linebackers in solo run tackles (59) in 2013, then topped it by leading players at all positions in solo run tackles (61) last year. He was also sixth in tackles for loss (17), which is remarkable for a player who rarely rushes the quarterback. After Watt, David is the best run defender in football.
30. Trent Williams, T, Washington (47)
Williams wasn’t quite his usual self last season, given that he played through a partially dislocated kneecap (Week 4), a sprained MCL (Week 11), and a shoulder injury (Week 15) before suffering a high ankle sprain during Week 17. He missed only one game all season; I know Washington fans who faked injuries to skip watching more games than that by the end of the year. His penalty total spiked to a career-high 10, but Williams should be back to his usual self this season. Scot McCloughan’s too smart to let him hit free agency after 2015; if anything, now would be a good time to try to buy low on Washington’s star left tackle.
29. Calais Campbell, DE, Cardinals (99)
28. Gerald McCoy, DT, Buccaneers (28)
27. Ndamukong Suh, DT, Dolphins (24)
Campbell does not belong 71 spots below McCoy and 75 spots below Suh, that’s for sure. He missed two games because Julius Thomas took him out with an illegal block and still managed to lead a mostly anonymous Arizona front seven to the league’s sixth-best run defense. I’ve thought Suh was better than McCoy because Suh stayed healthier and was the better pass-rusher, but that advantage is beginning to fade. Over the past two years, McCoy has 18 sacks and 34 quarterback hits for a total of 52 knockdowns; Suh’s 14 sacks and 40 hits leave him narrowly ahead at 54.
Cliff McBride/Getty Images
26. Drew Brees, QB, Saints (30)
Brees had ranked no lower than 11th in the first four editions of the players’ poll before dropping all the way to 30th this time around. Brees is still incredibly accurate and continues to avoid sacks at a rate above league average by getting the ball out quickly. The problem, instead, has been that Brees is getting less out of each of his throws than he has in years past. He averaged 7.5 yards per attempt in 2014, his lowest rate since 2010 and the third-lowest rate he’s posted as a Saints passer.
One of the biggest reasons Brees has dropped off is out of his control: The Saints just haven’t done much after the catch. After spending the previous few years around league average, the Saints were one of the least effective teams with the ball in their hands in 2014:
That should be better in 2015. The Saints lost Jimmy Graham, but their star tight end was 93rd in average YAC (4.0 yards) between 2011 and 2014. Brandin Cooks should be dynamic with the football in his hands if he’s healthy, and C.J. Spiller should give the Saints the Darren Sproles–esque receiving weapon out of the backfield that Brees missed last season. Fixing Brees may be as simple as fixing his receivers.
25. Jason Peters, T, Eagles (40)
Peters was the last man standing along Philadelphia’s injury-riddled offensive line for most of 2014, and it showed; he tied his Eagles high in sacks allowed (6.5) and set a career high for penalties (11 for 90 yards), including five false starts. The highlight of his season was probably laying out Chris Baker after this cheap shot on Nick Foles:
Even with Philadelphia moving on from both of its starting guards, merely playing next to Allen Barbre in training camp should allow for more continuity than Philadelphia’s left side had a year ago. As spectacular as an offensive lineman can possibly be at times, Peters should be more consistent in 2015.
24. Ben Roethlisberger, QB, Steelers (26)
Buoyed by his first healthy, effective offensive line in years, Roethlisberger made it through all 16 games for the second consecutive season and delivered arguably his finest season as a pro. It’s almost impossible for a quarterback to average more than eight yards per attempt while completing 67 percent of his passes, but that’s what Roethlisberger managed to pull off. It’s not the first time he’s been able to pick up huge chunks of yardage, but the style has changed.
In the past, Roethlisberger made his way over the eight-yards-per-attempt mark by throwing deep under mad bomber Bruce Arians. From 2007 to 2011, while Arians was Pittsburgh’s offensive coordinator, Roethlisberger’s average pass went a league-high 9.3 yards in the air. Since Todd Haley arrived in 2012, Roethlisberger has been right around league average at 8.3 air yards per throw, which didn’t change in 2014.
Instead, with time to throw, Roethlisberger was able to lead his receivers into open areas. The Steelers were fifth in the league in receiving yards before contact (10.5) after finishing below league average in both 2012 and 2013. Having Antonio Brown is one thing; being able to get the ball into places where Antonio Brown can make people miss is another.
23. Julio Jones, WR, Falcons (13)
I don’t care that this is from 2013.
22. Cam Newton, QB, Panthers (73)
The players dropped Newton 49 spots from his placement on their collective 2014 ballot, which seems really odd, given that what he did with the Panthers last season basically emulated the astronauts landing the lunar module at the end of Apollo 13. Newton’s overall performance remains roughly stagnant — he’s posted a QBR between 54.4 and 61.1 in each of his four professional seasons — but even if he just settles in as this guy, as a quarterback who can dominate in short-yardage situations and run an effective offense while the offensive line disintegrates six times a possession, that’s a really valuable player. Smiles are free, just not Cam Newton’s. The man deserved everything he got from Carolina.
21. Calvin Johnson, WR, Lions (6)
Even I’ll admit that it seems downright blasphemous to list Megatron this low. Most of my concern here boils down to injuries; Johnson is an enormously physical player, and Matthew Stafford has never had any qualms about putting his receivers in danger with throws into tight windows. He’s missed five games over the past two seasons, and I’d be worried that Johnson’s going to continue to miss games.
He also took a step down on a per-game performance level last year, with the arrival of Golden Tate siphoning some receptions away; he fell below 100 yards per game for the first time since 2010, dropping down all the way to 82.8 receiving yards per contest. Megatron’s still an incredible receiver, but I wonder if we’ve seen his peak in those age-26 through age-28 seasons. Larry Fitzgerald, a similarly enormous receiver, peaked at 28 and hasn’t been remotely the same player since.
20. A.J. Green, WR, Bengals (37)
Most receiving yards through four seasons in NFL history:
Not terrible company.
19. Robert Quinn, DE, Rams (44)
Quinn was at the forefront of that weird first month and a half when what looked to be the league’s best front four couldn’t manufacture a sack to save its life. Quinn had zero sacks through Week 6 and then promptly had six in his next four games. He wasn’t quite as dominant as he was in 2013, when he had 19 sacks and 34 quarterback hits, but Quinn still managed to come up with 10.5 sacks and 20 hits in what felt like a down year. I think we’re going to look back at those numbers like they were Watt’s 2013.
18. Dez Bryant, WR, Cowboys (15)
Highest rate of red zone targets converted to touchdowns for wide receivers, 2012 to 2014 (minimum 40 targets):
The only guys in the league who are even narrowly more efficient in the red zone than Bryant are Julius Thomas (53.1 percent) and Rob Gronkowski (47.6 percent). When you’re nearly as efficient in the end zone as Gronk, you’re pretty incredible. (Also, James Jones! Who knew?)
Jamie Squire/Getty Images
17. Justin Houston, LB, Chiefs (27)
Houston’s cursed to play in an era when he’s matched up against one of the greatest defensive players in the history of football. It’s really not fair. Twenty-two-sack seasons don’t come around every day; it’s only the fourth time since the league started recording sacks that a player even made it to 22, and nobody’s gotten to 23. Houston basically had close to the most productive pass-rushing season a player has had in modern league history … and was completely overshadowed by Watt, because Watt also happens to be the best run defender in the league, while Houston’s just a competent linebacker against the run. If Watt doesn’t exist, Houston probably gets some MVP consideration in 2014. Then again, I also don’t know what’s powering most of Houston if Watt doesn’t exist.
16. Joe Thomas, T, Browns (25)
Thomas is one of the best left tackles in league history. He’s one of 12 players to make the Pro Bowl in each of his first eight seasons; the other 11 players on that list are each in the Hall of Fame. And you positively cannot pick him out of this lineup of four current Browns:
15. Von Miller, LB, Broncos (33)
Here’s another player whose greatness might be masked by the fact his best season is still his rookie campaign. Miller’s averaged 0.88 sacks per game as a pro; plug him in for 14 games in 2015 and he gets to 12 sacks. That would give him 61 in his first five seasons, which would the sixth-highest total5 since the league started tracking sacks. The only guys ahead of Miller would be Watt, Richard Dent, DeMarcus Ware, Derrick Thomas, and Reggie White, who is 15 sacks ahead of anybody else. And that’s with Miller missing seven games in 2013.
Unless Watt finishes the season with three sacks or fewer, since he has 57 in four years.
14. Rob Gronkowski, TE, Patriots (10)
Oh, if Gronk could only stay healthy. The healthy second-half version of Gronk would be good enough to justify a higher spot on this list, but after Gronkowski’s 2012 and 2013 seasons (and even part of his 2014 season) were affected by various maladies, it’s just impossible to count on the big lug to suit up for 16 games. He’s already seventh on the all-time receiving touchdowns list for tight ends with 54, which is pretty remarkable for a guy who has played 65 games. And let us not forget the time he threw Sergio Brown out of the club:
13. Tyron Smith, T, Cowboys (36)
Mays threw in my favorite Tyron Smith tidbit of the year during Thursday’s podcast: Tyron Smith is younger than Zack Martin.
12. Darrelle Revis, CB, Jets (17)
11. Richard Sherman, CB, Seahawks (11)
It’s fair to put Sherman just ahead of Revis because of the age gap, but Revis spent more time on the opposing team’s no. 1 wideout than Sherman did last year, if only because he moved around while Sherman stayed on one side of the field. Revis roughly turned those no. 1s into Kenbrell Thompkins. Even with Revis moving around, though, the Seahawks posted a better DVOA against no. 1 wideouts than the Patriots. No. 1? The Bengals, of all teams.
Revis got plenty of help by virtue of having the second-best coverage safety in football, Devin McCourty, lying in wait in center field. Sherman had the best coverage safety of his generation behind him …
10. Earl Thomas, S, Seahawks (21)
The news that Thomas may miss the beginning of the season while recovering from a torn labrum reminded me of two things. One, I still don’t entirely comprehend how Thomas played through a torn labrum and Sherman worked through torn elbow ligaments in the Super Bowl.
The other thing is that the Seahawks need Thomas more than they need Sherman. About 95 percent of the time, given the choice between a great safety and a great cornerback, you would choose the latter, because cornerbacks tend to be harder to find and cost more on the free-agent market. There are some teams out there that would choose Sherman, and I wouldn’t really blame them for doing so. He’s an incredible player.
In terms of what the Seahawks run on defense, though, they can’t replace Thomas. Pete Carroll can coach up cornerbacks with flaws; he did it with Sherman (a fifth-rounder), Brandon Browner (a CFL refugee), and then Byron Maxwell (a sixth-rounder). I don’t think he can do that at free safety, because there may not be anybody who can play center field in Seattle’s Cover 3 look like Thomas. There are a few safeties who have the route recognition and patience of Thomas, and there are a few athletic freaks who can drive on throws up either seam the way Thomas does, but nobody even comes close to doing both at the highest level.
The Seahawks can change up their looks and ask for less out of Thomas’s replacement (undrafted special-teamer DeShawn Shead, who played 88 defensive snaps last year) and get by. They’ll still be good. They just won’t be the Seahawks defense without Thomas. It would be bad if he missed time in September. It could be fatal to Seattle’s chances if he never gets healthy and isn’t around in January.
Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images
9. Russell Wilson, QB, Seahawks (22)
I’ll refer you to my Russell Wilson column from earlier in July. As good as Thomas is, the best safety of his generation is still less valuable than a very good quarterback.
8. Philip Rivers, QB, Chargers (43)
I’m not often fond of using Football Outsiders’ DVOA statistic as a measure of individual value, but one place it can be really useful is measuring strength of schedule. The “D” in DVOA doesn’t stand for Detroit; it stands for defense-adjusted, and when you compare a passer’s VOA to his DVOA, you can figure out how strength of schedule affected a player’s performance.
Among regular quarterbacks (with 400-plus attempts) in 2014, Rivers faced the league’s second-toughest slate of pass defenses, as indicated by the three-point gap between his DVOA and VOA. The toughest schedule, by a comfortable margin, belonged to Oakland’s Derek Carr. The AFC West had a great pass defense (Denver, fifth in DVOA) and a good pass defense (Kansas City, 13th), and the Chargers and Raiders each played them twice. Their eight regularly scheduled out-of-division matchups included the Bills, Seahawks, and 49ers, who were three of the top four pass defenses in football. Poor Carr also faced the Browns and Texans, which means he played seven games against the league’s six best pass defenses.
7. Antonio Brown, WR, Steelers (8)
6. Tony Romo, QB, Cowboys (34)
It’s a shame we’ve collectively decided not to take Romo seriously, because he sure was great last year. He comfortably posted the best QBR in the league at 83.6, beating out Aaron Rodgers by more than six full points. Romo was no. 1 in both completion percentage and yards per attempt, becoming just the second qualifying passer to accomplish that in 13 years. He was tied for the league lead with five game-winning drives, and the only quarterback with more fourth-quarter comebacks was Matthew Stafford. I’m sure DeMarco Murray and that dominant running game helped, but it also distracted from just how great Romo was in 2014. NFL players put him 30 spots behind Murray, which is an argument for not listening to NFL players.
5. Peyton Manning, QB, Broncos (5)
You know how Manning was toast for the final five games of the year and during that playoff loss to the Colts? He really wasn’t that bad. His line over those six games was decent: 120-of-201 (59.7 percent) for 1,380 yards (6.9 yards per attempt), with six touchdowns and six interceptions. That was good for a 78.0 passer rating and a 51.3 QBR — not great, but about as good as what Rivers (80.4 passer rating, 51.1 QBR) did over that same final stretch, and people aren’t writing Rivers off. Maybe Manning won’t be the same guy this year. Maybe it really is time for Brock Osweiler. I just know that I’ve made the mistake of counting out Manning before his time previously, and I don’t want to again. There’s a lot of space between Peyton Manning and mediocrity.
4. Tom Brady, QB, Patriots (3)
People genuinely thought Brady was done after Week 4, too, remember. That didn’t go very well, and Brady was even worse than Manning, posting a 50.6 QBR that ranked 28th in the league through that awful Chiefs game. After that Chiefs game through the postseason, the only player who posted a better QBR than Brady (82.6) was Romo (83.7). Let’s stop writing Hall of Fame quarterbacks off after a bad month.
3. J.J. Watt, DE, Texans (1)
I totally support the players listing Watt as the no. 1 player in football. It’s defensible, and if I was putting this list together as a function of how much better a player was than the others at his position, Watt would be no. 1 by a comfortable margin.
In a vacuum, though, as good as Watt is, he can’t be as valuable as a superstar quarterback. We have evidence of that: 2013, when Watt was incredible and the rest of his team was horrific enough for the Texans to go 2-14. That just doesn’t happen with great quarterbacks playing at a high level. There’s no easy way to group or delineate “great” quarterbacks, but to go with one simple era-adjusted stat, let’s just run with Pro-Football-Reference.com’s index statistics and consider starting quarterbacks who posted a NY/A+6 of 125 or more.
Net Yards per Attempt, with the ‘+’ indicating that it’s an indexed statistic.
There just aren’t many quarterbacks who did that and even posted a losing record, let alone the worst record in football like the Texans did in 2013. You’re basically looking at Dan Marino in 1988 and that’s it. A great quarterback simply gives you more chances to win than a great defensive player, even if it’s the best defensive player of his generation.
2. Andrew Luck, QB, Colts (7)
Poor Luck just always comes up short in these lists. He was third in the Trade Value rankings in 2013 before moving up to no. 2 in the rankings last year. And this year, with the shift toward value in a salary-less vacuum,7 Luck comes up just short to …
The Colts are going to wish they were playing in this vacuum soon.
Ronald Martinez/Getty Images
1. Aaron Rodgers, QB, Packers (2)
… the best player in football.