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The NFL 100 Rankings: Part 1

The players had their say once again, but now it’s time to deliver our list of the top players in the league starting with nos. 100-61.

The NFL’s annual Top 100 Players countdown is never a pretty sight. As a list voted on by the very same players who suit up on Sundays, you would imagine that it should be the most accurate accounting of who actually stands out as the league’s top talent. As I’ve written about in the past, players fall into a lot of the same traps that we on the outside often fall into as fans.

The 2015 edition is no exception. Look at the list of problems I brought up in that feature from 2013 and you’ll see the same major issues pop up in this year’s production, just with new names and faces:

• Skill-position players are overrated at the expense of players who don’t touch the football. You would figure that if anybody was likely to appreciate the impact of players who toil in the trenches over the guys who rack up fantasy football points, it would be NFL players. And yet, time after time, that’s simply not the case. It’s true that J.J. Watt finished atop this year’s list, which is a nice nod for the league’s generational defensive talent, but even Watt scored five touchdowns last year.

It’s impossible to quantitatively determine just how much of the credit running backs and offensive linemen should split in a dominant running game, but player valuations around the league suggest that most of the credit should go to offensive linemen. When they voted on the league’s top 100 players, the electorate named nearly twice as many running backs (11) to the list as offensive linemen (six), despite the fact there are several offensive linemen in the lineup for each running back on any given play. In all, 49 of the 100 spots went to players who are expected to score points on a weekly basis. That’s just not realistic.

• Players suffer from recency bias. While there are a few exceptions on this list, the Top 100 tends to be a what-have-you-done-for-me-lately production. You can argue that Adrian Peterson shouldn’t have been considered the fourth-best player in 2014, but after missing virtually all of the season because of an off-field scandal, did he really suddenly become the 62nd-best player? Players who impress in a small sample also make their way onto the list for stints that are as short as expected, like Tim Tebow (2012), Nick Foles (2014), and Adam Vinatieri (2015).

• Players who won the most recent Super Bowl get an artificial boost. Given that players can vote through April, it’s no surprise they might pay particular attention to the guys in the last game they were likely to see, the Super Bowl. In 2013, relatively anonymous Ravens like Bernard Pollard, Jacoby Jones, and Dennis Pitta all managed to make the Top 100. Things aren’t quite as blatant this year, but the 2015 Top 100 finds a spot for Patriots wideout Julian Edelman over missing players like Andre Johnson (no. 21 in 2014), Vincent Jackson (no. 44), and Alshon Jeffery (no. 54). Edelman was unquestionably a valuable part of New England’s championship run, but if the Patriots get knocked out in the divisional round by Baltimore, does anyone really think he gets into the Top 100?

Kansas City Chiefs v Pittsburgh SteelersGregory Shamus/Getty Images

My Year-Start List

Putting together a Top 100 ballot can be tough, especially given that players only put together a 20-person list when they file theirs to the NFL. So, with that in mind, let’s give them some help. No Top 100 list will ever be perfect, and I’m sure there are plenty of flaws in the one I’m about to present. I’m also pretty sure it’s a marked improvement on the one put together by the players.

Part of the problem in compiling this list is that the idea of what the “Top” players are can mean different things to different people. Is it the most talented players relative to other guys at their position? Is it a measure of who was best in 2014, or who is likeliest to be best in 2015? How much of it is production versus talent? Should you account for scheme? All of those questions come into play, and there isn’t often an obvious answer.

In putting together my list, I operated under the idea that I was ranking players in the order in which they might be drafted in a single-season leaguewide draft for the upcoming 2015 season,1 based on players’ past performance. I didn’t include rookies. I ignored suspensions for players who are out for part of the year (like Le’Veon Bell), but I wiped out players with serious injuries who might very well not exhibit the same talent when they come back (like NaVorro Bowman and Ryan Clady).


1.

It’s more in the abstract and doesn’t really consider it to be a function of actually forming a team, so if the team “drafting” second took a quarterback, it wouldn’t preclude that team from taking a quarterback when its turn came up again at no. 34. Think of this like a 100-team NFL making 100 picks. Then don’t think too hard, because this whole thing is very silly.

You may remember the Trade Value columns I put together in summers past.2 This column differs in a few key ways:


2.

Retired this year for what I would imagine is a pretty obvious reason.

• Contracts don’t matter. This isn’t a team-building exercise, it’s a talent/production evaluation exercise. Much of the value for players like Russell Wilson in the trade value column came from the benefit of having extra money to spend elsewhere on the roster. That’s not the case here.

• Age only matters in the sense of a player’s performance curve. Since we’re only considering likely performance for 2015 and not the years beyond, older players retain more of their value. There’s still some risk that a star like Peyton Manning could suddenly see his performance fall off a cliff, but the chances of that are far lower in 2015 than they are from 2015 to 2018.

• Durability isn’t as important. Take Eli Manning and Ben Roethlisberger, who were each drafted in the first round of that famous 2004 NFL draft. In a vacuum, when both are healthy, I think most people would say Roethlisberger is the better quarterback. Manning makes up a lot of the difference between the two by staying healthy. Roethlisberger has stayed healthy the past two years, but since both he and Manning entered their first full year as starters in 2005, Roethlisberger has missed nearly an entire season’s worth of starts (15 games), while Manning hasn’t missed a start. That gap is more likely to be felt over a five-year stretch than it is in any given year.

• Players are measured on both their performance and the relative value of their positions. When you get angry reading the list below, this is the key component you’ll want to keep in mind. Luke Kuechly is an incredible middle linebacker and unquestionably one of the two or three best interior linebackers in football. He’s also playing a position that teams simply don’t value; teams routinely let star middle linebacker prospects slip below the level their talent might suggest on draft day and rarely give them big money in free agency.

That doesn’t make Kuechly any less valuable of a middle linebacker, but it does suggest that the league doesn’t think middle linebacker is a very valuable position. As a result, while somebody like Demaryius Thomas might be closer to the fifth- or sixth-best wide receiver in football, by virtue of playing a position that’s treated as more valuable, he’s going to be higher on this list.

With that being said, this Top 100 is far less weighted toward skill-position talent.3 As you can see in the table below, there’s more of an emphasis on offensive linemen and cornerbacks, where free-agent spending on talent has basically amounted to wild speculation during the past two offseasons. And while the NFL list somehow manages to have nearly as many running backs (11) as quarterbacks (12), that has been rectified on this list. This isn’t 1978. It’s a passing league now.


3.

There are a few players who don’t cleanly fit into one category. I threw J.J. Watt in as an edge rusher because he spent so much time in 2014 lining up outside the tackle in passing situations, something I think he’ll continue to do in 2015. (I was also giving more positional value to edge rushers, and Watt deserves the credit.) I kept Michael Bennett as an edge rusher, but he could just as easily have been an interior defensive lineman. Clay Matthews spent a huge chunk of time filling in at inside linebacker last year, and while he’ll continue to play there some, I think his long-term role is still as an edge rusher.

San Francisco 49ers v Arizona CardinalsChristian Petersen/Getty Images

The Absent

There are 22 players included in the NFL’s Top 100 who didn’t make it onto my list. Very few of them missed by much. Take the eight wide receivers who crept onto the NFL’s Top 100 and didn’t make it onto mine. Of DeSean Jackson (no. 50 on the NFL’s list), Steve Smith (no. 54), Brandon Marshall (no. 57), Larry Fitzgerald (no. 68), Mike Evans (no. 75), Golden Tate (no. 85), Julian Edelman (no. 91), and Emmanuel Sanders (no. 95), only Fitzgerald stands out as a player who obviously doesn’t belong in consideration, and even that is probably in part because his quarterbacks have been so mediocre in recent years.

Running back was the obvious place where I pulled back, and that left some talented rushers on the other side of the cut. Matt Forte (no. 48, the highest-ranked player to miss) probably would have been no higher than no. 105 if I extended the list, and Eddie Lacy (no. 60) wouldn’t have been far behind him. Justin Forsett (no. 65) and Arian Foster (no. 80) were a little further beyond. The only obvious miss was Darren Sproles (no. 81). I love Sproles and think players of his type are often undervalued, but he was nearly cut before the Eagles sent a late-round pick to New Orleans last offseason. Sproles can be dynamic, but he’s a part-time player who fumbled four times on 137 touches. He’s not the sort of consistently great, Devin Hester–level returner to justify top-100 status.

Sproles was one of the few guys on the list who really left me puzzled. I have all the respect in the world for future Hall of Famer Charles Woodson (no. 64), but even a generous interpretation of his play would peg him as an average safety at this point of his career. Younger safeties like T.J. McDonald and Reshad Jones are playing at a higher level than Woodson, even if their names aren’t quite as notable. And while Colts kicker Adam Vinatieri (no. 98) went 30-for-31 on field goals last year, history tells us a season like that is forged almost entirely out of a small sample. (Vinatieri promptly missed two of his seven attempts in the playoffs.) Really, Vinatieri isn’t even the best specialist on his own team; Pat McAfee, the Grantland All-Pro Team punter, might very well have been both the best punter and the best kickoff man in football last season. If you wanted to include a special-teams weapon, he would be your man.

Otherwise, it’s just a bunch of good players who narrowly missed out, including a whole bunch of quality front-seven pieces. You could form quite a defense with Jerry Hughes (no. 63), Tamba Hali (no. 70), Julius Peppers (no. 71), Sen’Derrick Marks (no. 76), and Aaron Donald (no. 92), the latter of whom was the last cut at no. 101. Throw in a pair of tight ends in Antonio Gates (no. 52) and Greg Olsen (no. 89) and you’ve got your 22 missing stars.

There were a few hard cuts who didn’t make the NFL’s Top 100 and barely missed out on mine. Many of those were young players who emerged as possible stars under the radar last season, such as Lions cornerback Darius Slay, Cowboys guard Zack Martin, and rangy Patriots linebacker Jamie Collins. I also couldn’t find spots for Collins’s fellow Super Bowl–winning ends, Chandler Jones and Rob Ninkovich. Dontari Poe and Sean Smith helped keep the Chiefs afloat after the team lost multiple starters early in the year. All of these players are really talented, and it wouldn’t be out of the question for them to appear in anybody’s Top 100. They just narrowly fail to make it on this one.

The List, Day 1

Today, we’ll start this two-part Top 100 by running through players 100-61. The top 60 will appear on Friday. With each player, I’ll include their ranking in this year’s NFL Top 100 in parentheses. If there’s a large gap between my ranking and where the players placed a guy, I’ll get into why. Which means that it’s a good place to begin with the player who has the largest gap between his ranking on the NFL’s list and my own:

100. DeMarco Murray, RB, Eagles (fourth on NFL Top 100)

Murray made an 83-spot rise on the NFL’s list, and while he had a dominant season in 2014, it’s also difficult to project that he’ll be playing at that level moving forward, because of his propensity for injury. Murray missed 11 of his first 48 games as a pro before last season. His first healthy season in 2014 is both a blessing (since it is evidence he can make it through a heavy workload unscathed) and a curse (since workloads that heavy — he had 392 regular-season carries — are often followed by injuries, a downswing in per-carry performance, or sheer regression toward the mean).

Even if you factor in that 2014 campaign, his average line over the past three seasons as the starting running back in Dallas is 257-1,210-9; that leaves him about equivalent to Jamaal Charles, who has been far more consistent while averaging 250-1,276-9 over that same three-year span behind an inferior offensive line. Murray will be behind another good offensive line in Philadelphia in 2015, and he’s unquestionably one of the league’s best running backs when healthy, but the vast majority of evidence suggests Murray won’t be available for all 16 games.

99. C.J. Mosley, ILB, Ravens (94)

The list of defenders since 1996 to start all 16 games as a rookie for the Baltimore Ravens: Peter Boulware, Anthony Weaver, Ed Reed, Haloti Ngata, C.J. Mosley. That’s good company, and you’ll note that it doesn’t include Ray Lewis, who Mosley appears to be succeeding in the middle as the leader of Baltimore’s defense. Mosley also made the Pro Bowl as a rookie, just the fourth time a middle linebacker has done that over that same time frame.

Mosley and Daryl Smith form such a tough combination inside for Baltimore because they can both really do it all; you can’t pick on either of them in the passing game without running the risk of having your pass knocked away or worse. Mosley defended eight passes last year; according to Stats LLC, the only inside linebackers to bat away more throws were Luke Kuechly and Brandon Marshall.

Philadelphia Eagles v San Francisco 49ersEzra Shaw/Getty Images

98. Jeremy Maclin, WR, Chiefs (61)

Maclin’s comeback season saw him rise to new heights, as he had failed to get over 1,000 receiving yards in each of his five pro seasons before getting to 1,318 yards in a breakout 2014 with the Eagles. The former Mizzou star showed few ill effects from his second torn ACL in eight years, but as was the case with Murray, it’s tough to really believe that he’s established a new level of performance after years below that standard. And while the Chiefs gave him a five-year, $55 million deal to be their top receiver, Maclin is joining an offense where nobody managed to top 95 targets in 2014. Even if Maclin makes it into triple-digits, it’s hard to see him hitting his 143-target total from one year ago.

97. Delanie Walker, TE, Titans (NR)

Regarded as one of the league’s best blocking tight ends during his time as Vernon Davis’s backup in San Francisco, Walker emerged last year as one of a particularly rare species: a successful Ruston Webster free-agent signing. Walker made it out of the woodwork by cutting his drops. From 2011 to 2013, Walker dropped 7.7 percent of the passes thrown to him, more than any other tight end. In 2014, he dropped just three of the 103 passes thrown in his direction, a 2.9 percent rate that was below the league average of 3.6 percent. And Coby Fleener was the only regular tight end who averaged more yards per reception than Walker’s 14.1. If he can continue avoiding drops, Walker’s all-around package makes him one of the most underrated skill-position players in the NFL and a rare building block for Tennessee.

96. Alex Mack, C, Browns (NR)

If you’ve heard Robert Mays and I discuss Mack on the Grantland NFL Podcast, you know I can’t get behind Mack’s contract, which allows him to opt out after the 2015 season or make a guaranteed $8 million in 2016. That will look ugly if Mack fails to recover from the broken fibula that limited him to five games last season, especially given that the Browns used a first-round pick on Cameron Erving, whose best position at the professional level is likely to be at center as Mack’s replacement.

As a player, it’s hard to argue that Mack is anything but one of the league’s best centers. You’ve probably already heard the split from 2014: The Browns averaged 26.8 points per game with Mack in the lineup and just 15.0 points per game after he left. Those numbers overstate Mack’s case, but there’s another split that makes the story clearer: The Browns averaged an impressive 4.5 yards per carry while Mack was around, and that number promptly fell to 3.3 yards per attempt after he got hurt.

95. Tashaun Gipson, S, Browns (67)

Gipson is unquestionably high on the NFL’s list because of his interception totals. He picked off six passes in 11 games last year and has 11 picks over the past two seasons; the only player who has come up with more interceptions over that time frame is Richard Sherman. Interceptions are too inconsistent of a statistic for Gipson to keep that up, but he’s a quietly important part of the league’s second-best pass defense, patrolling center field while allowing Donte Whitner to press into the box as a run defender. He’s not dissimilar from Jairus Byrd, and as you may remember, Byrd got paid an awful lot when he hit free agency in 2014. Gipson, an undrafted free agent, will likely do the same if he hits the market this upcoming offseason.

94. Brandon Flowers, CB, Chargers (NR)
93. Antoine Bethea, S, 49ers (NR)

Both Flowers and Bethea were veteran free-agent defensive backs who actually got better after leaving their longtime homes. Flowers was a poster child for why teams should leave cap space open throughout the summer. The Chargers snapped him up in the middle of June for $3 million, took the 5-foot-9 Flowers out of a press-man scheme, and got one of the league’s best cornerbacks for pennies on the dollar before signing him to an extension that already looks like a bargain. Bethea, meanwhile, was arguably San Francisco’s best player after signing a four-year, $21 million deal in March. The middle of the market rarely delivers value, but the 49ers have repeatedly found useful safeties in free agency, both with Bethea and the man he replaced, Donte Whitner.

92. Julius Thomas, TE, Jaguars (45)

It’s hard to catch touchdowns on 18.5 percent of your catches, which is what Thomas did in 2013. It’s even harder to score on 27.9 percent of your receptions, and that’s what Thomas did as a follow-up last year with the Broncos before limping through the second half with a high ankle sprain. Among receivers, only Rob Gronkowski approaches that sort of scoring frequency. The Jaguars offense wasn’t good anywhere last year, but it was really brutal in the red zone, where Blake Bortles somehow managed to post a 2.1 QBR on his 38 pass attempts. That wasn’t just the worst rate of 2014; it’s the third-worst QBR any passer has posted in the red zone since the stat has been recorded.

The problem in evaluating Thomas comes with his move from Denver to Jacksonville. Thomas is going to help, but he’s probably not going to score as frequently as he did with Peyton Manning as his quarterback. On the flip side, the Jaguars are also likely going to target Thomas more frequently than Manning did in the other 80 yards of the field. Thomas isn’t much of a blocker, so if he’s not scoring touchdowns, he can’t provide a lot of value catching 4.5 passes per game, which is where he was at in Denver. If he settles in as a 70-980-7 guy, is that really valuable?

91. Jimmy Smith, CB, Ravens (NR)

It’s been an up-and-down career for the young Ravens corner, who fell out of favor during the 2012 season before playing a key role in the Super Bowl victory over the 49ers. Smith solidified his role in the starting lineup during 2013, but he took his game to another level in 2014; he looked like one of the best cornerbacks in football before suffering a Lisfranc injury that ended his season after eight games. Baltimore’s cornerback depth cratered as the season went along, and it’s fair to wonder whether the Ravens would have beat the Patriots in the playoffs if they had Smith in the starting lineup instead of practice squad refugee Rashaan Melvin.

90. LeSean McCoy, RB, Bills (29)

While Shady stayed healthy for the second season in a row with Philadelphia, the injuries among his offensive line and a lack of big plays saw his numbers fall toward the league average. Though he toted the rock almost exactly as many times as he did during that standout 2013 campaign, McCoy failed to hit his round numbers anywhere near as frequently during a disappointing 2014:

McCoy’s receiving totals also hit career lows, with most of his work as a pass-catcher going to Sproles. He should continue to get a heavy workload in Buffalo, but with one of the league’s worst offensive lines struggling to lead the way, can he really be the star he was in 2013 again?

89. Fletcher Cox, DE, Eagles (NR)

One of the more egregious absences from this year’s player rankings, Cox was the primary tackler on 43 running plays last year. That’s more than any other 3-4 defensive end in the league. Yes, even more than J.J. Watt (35). Cox still hasn’t arrived as an interior pass-rusher, which is why he’s below some similarly skilled players on this list, but he was a raw athlete coming out of Mississippi State. It wouldn’t surprise me to see him take a sudden leap and approach 10 sacks this season, and if he does that, he’s going to make a boatload of money next offseason.

88. Joe Haden, CB, Browns (23)

Haden has built a reputation as one of the league’s top young cornerbacks, and the Browns had an excellent pass defense last year, but he’s had some consistency issues that leave him in the second tier of cornerbacks for me. While Haden was the lead defender in holding A.J. Green to 23- and 49-yard performances last year, he was also the primary cornerback allowing 116- and 118-yard games to Antonio Brown. Kendall Wright scored two touchdowns against Cleveland. T.Y. Hilton had a mammoth 10-150-2 game, including a long score on Haden. Mike Evans went for 124 yards and two scores. Steve Smith went for 101 yards and beat Haden to set up a game-winning field goal in Week 3. Go through those big games and Haden isn’t always at fault, but he can be burned.

87. DeMarcus Ware, OLB, Broncos (87)
86. Cameron Wake, DE, Dolphins (39)
85. Mario Williams, DE, Bills (42)

A run on veteran edge rushers! Williams has a perhaps unfair reputation as a stat compiler who picks up sacks in meaningless situations for bad football teams, but if anything, I wonder what has happened to Wake and Ware in big games in recent years. Denver’s pass rush disappeared during its playoff loss to the Colts, even though the Broncos were facing the league’s most hittable quarterback and coming off a week of rest.4 Ware didn’t even record a single quarterback hit. And in 2013, when the Dolphins lost consecutive games at the end of the year to miss the playoffs, Wake failed to record a sack or hit in either contest. I don’t think we should judge players that way, but if Williams has that sort of reputation, it’s only fair to look at others under the same prism.


4.

The Broncos failed to sack Andrew Luck even once on 42 dropbacks.

84. Randall Cobb, WR, Packers (100)

It’s pretty incredible that Cobb still hasn’t turned 25, right? He’s younger than almost all the receivers from the 2012 draft, including Kendall Wright, Jeffery, and Michael Floyd. He’s younger than Terrance Williams, who went pro during the 2013 draft. He’s younger than John Brown, who was taken in last year’s draft. We’re still waiting to figure out what all of those players are going to turn into, while Cobb has already turned into the best player from that group before even hitting their age.

New York Jets v Baltimore RavensRob Carr/Getty Images

83. Elvis Dumervil, OLB, Ravens (46)

Is it possible for somebody to have a quieter 17-sack season than Dumervil did last year? In six of the previous 10 seasons, 17 sacks would have led the league, but because he was overshadowed by Justin Houston and Watt racing past 20, Dumervil got lost in the shuffle. It’s fair to note that he picked on some of the league’s worst offensive lines; Dumervil had two sacks against the Falcons, 2.5 sacks against the Titans, two against the Saints, and 3.5 against a Branden Albert–less Dolphins line. It’s also fair to note that the Ravens hedge against Dumervil’s struggles against the run by taking him off the field and replacing him with Courtney Upshaw 45 percent of the time, which isn’t the case with Terrell Suggs (who played nearly 79 percent of Baltimore’s snaps last year). And you know what else is fair to note: 17 sacks!

82. Glover Quin, S, Lions (88)

Quin almost definitely made his way onto the Top 100 list by picking off a league-high seven passes, but he’s obviously not Stevie Brown or somebody else whose interception totals mask otherwise mediocre play. Being in the right place at the right time a few times in a season is one thing; doing this is another:

81. Louis Vasquez, G, Broncos (NR)

Is it weird that one of the best indicators of how good a guard is can be his team’s interest in moving him to another position? Vasquez has been so good at guard for the Broncos since joining them from San Diego that a desperate Denver offense moved him to tackle toward the end of the 2014 season. It didn’t really work, but that shouldn’t be a reflection on Vasquez’s ability as a run-blocker at right guard. With the Broncos lining up three new starters to the left of Vasquez and installing a heavier dosage of zone blocking under Gary Kubiak, Vasquez will have some adjusting to do, but he should still have enough athleticism to blow open holes while Peyton Manning runs the world’s slowest-developing stretch plays.

80. Vontae Davis, CB, Colts (59)

Davis is in the same boat as Haden for me, as an upper-echelon cornerback who looks as good as anybody in football on his best day, but struggles enough that you notice him getting beat more than somebody like Richard Sherman or Darrelle Revis. The cool thing about Davis is that he plays a lot more physical than his listed 5-11 height, so you get moments when you watch the Colts and it looks like he’s doing a Sherman impersonation at the line of scrimmage. Indy’s playoff win over the Broncos is a great example.

79. Jason Witten, TE, Cowboys (93)

We just take Witten’s dull greatness for granted at this point. He hasn’t missed a game since the fifth week of his rookie year in 2003, leaving him with the current longest consecutive games played streak for a non-specialist. Witten has fumbled as many times in the past 10 years as Travis Kelce and Larry Donnell each did last season (four, and that includes one Witten fumble in the playoffs). He has slowed down a bit over the past two years as the Cowboys have run the ball more frequently, but Witten still has the fourth-most catches in league history through his age-32 season, a stat that Chase Stuart drives home when writing about Witten’s Hall of Fame candidacy.

78. Jason McCourty, CB, Titans (NR)

Tennessee’s star cornerback deserves a lot better than his lot in life at the moment. In the prime of his career and having emerged as a criminally underrated cornerback, McCourty is stuck on a Titans team that simply hasn’t invested well on defense. His effectiveness was highlighted by the misery across from him in the form of Blidi Wreh-Wilson; the Titans were 10th in the league against no. 1 receivers and last against no. 2 wideouts, which should tell you a lot about how McCourty shined. His best season was likely 2013, but on a better team he would have a deservedly higher profile.

77. Alex Smith, QB, Chiefs (NR)
76. Colin Kaepernick, QB, 49ers (NR)

If the 49ers struggle as much as everyone expects this year and Alex Smith performs to his exalted level of competency in Kansas City, we’re going to see articles about how Jim Harbaugh should have gone back to Smith in 2012 after he returned from injury. You should not believe these articles.

75. Haloti Ngata, DT, Lions (82)

Typing “Lions” next to Ngata’s name is going to be weird for a while.

Baltimore Ravens v Buffalo BillsTom Szczerbowski/Getty Images

74. Kyle Williams, DT, Bills (72)

Williams was every bit as good as usual for one of the league’s best defensive lines and somehow dropped 40 spots from his 2014 ranking on the Top 100 list. That couldn’t have anything to do with his sack total falling from 10.5 to 5.5, could it? Stats? No, players don’t care about stats! Williams, who has now made the Pro Bowl in each of his past four healthy seasons, still managed 15 quarterback knockdowns last year. The only 4-3 defensive tackles to knock passers down more frequently were Ndamukong Suh, Sen’Derrick Marks, and Jason Jones.

73. Jamaal Charles, RB, Chiefs (12)

I compared Murray to Charles earlier, but Charles is further ahead because he has a much longer track record of performing at a steadily high level. The Chiefs gave Charles new money during the 2014 offseason and promptly cut his workload by 53 carries and 45 targets, with many of those carries going to the inferior Knile Davis. That reduces his value some, and while Charles still managed to average 5.0 yards per carry, he fumbled five times on 246 touches. He has fumbled 14 times over the past three seasons, more than any other running back.

72. Jurrell Casey, DE, Titans (96)
71. Sheldon Richardson, DE, Jets (55)

If it weren’t for the fact that Watt exists, these two would get more attention for being among the best interior pass-rushers. Among 3-4 ends, the only players with more quarterback knockdowns than Casey (18) and Richardson (19) last year were Richardson’s teammate Muhammad Wilkerson (21) and God’s teammate, Watt, who had 51 knockdowns. Nobody else had more than 28. I don’t even know what to say.

70. Maurkice Pouncey, C, Steelers (83)

After years of being ripped apart by catastrophic injuries, the Steelers finally pieced their offensive line together in 2014. At its core was Pouncey, who bounced back after missing 63 of 2013’s 64 quarters with a serious knee injury. Fun thing that is true: Pouncey’s now made four Pro Bowls through his age-25 season, only missing out during that lost season in 2013. Since the AFL-NFL merger in 1970, 11 Hall of Fame–eligible5 players have started their careers off with the same feat. Ten have made the Hall of Fame, and the only one who missed out was Dolphins linebacker John Offerdahl, who had his career destroyed by injuries immediately after turning 25. Still a long way to go, but Pouncey is off to a strong start.


5.

The guys who aren’t yet HOF eligible are probably all getting in, too, since it’s a list that consists of Ray Lewis, Charles Woodson, Randy Moss, Brian Urlacher, Champ Bailey, Jason Witten, Adrian Peterson, Patrick Willis, Earl Thomas, Patrick Peterson, and Pouncey.

69. Thomas Davis, LB, Panthers (NR)

Probably the coolest Thomas Davis stat:
Thomas Davis games played, 2009–2011: 9
Thomas Davis games played, 2012–2014: 46

It’s downright embarrassing that Davis hasn’t made it to the Pro Bowl over the past two seasons, but it’s also a function of an archaic system that pits Davis up against guys who have gaudy sack totals. He’s not the same sort of outside linebacker, and while you could make a case that DeAndre Levy was as good as Davis was in 2014, there are only about seven linebackers who can even hold a candle in coverage to Davis. He deserves a trip to Hawaii.

68. Matthew Stafford, QB, Lions (NR)

I’m surprised Stafford fell off the NFL’s list after finishing no. 100 in the previous edition, given that he was so much luckier in close games than he had been over 2012 and 2013. I think people are bored of Stafford because he’s basically established a level of competency and fluctuates between wildly great/dismal games on a week-by-week basis without ever really moving the needle when you take a step back and look at his annual performance.

His numbers were basically stagnant in 2014, but I think he deserves credit for keeping up appearances despite missing Calvin Johnson for the better part of five games. Then again, Megatron also deserves credit for a huge chunk of what Stafford did in 2011 and 2012.

67. Brent Grimes, CB, Dolphins (38)

I have no reason to think Grimes is anything but great, but here’s an interesting statistical quirk: Miami was 26th in DVOA on throws to the right side of the field in 2014, which is where Grimes often lined up as Miami’s left cornerback. The Dolphins were eighth on throws to the left side.

Pittsburgh Steelers v Carolina PanthersStreeter Lecka/Getty Images

66. Le’Veon Bell, RB, Steelers (16)

Thank god the Steelers were able to prepare for Bell’s early-season suspension this year by signing DeAngelo Williams. As weird as it was that Ryan Lindley started a playoff game last year, it was really about as weird that the Steelers were so flummoxed by Bell’s injury that they were forced to turn to Ben Tate on the opening play of their wild-card game against the Ravens. That’s the same Ben Tate who hadn’t lined up for the Steelers that season and who had been cut by the Browns and Vikings for loudly averaging 3.1 yards per carry. If Bell ran into Antonio Brown and knocked him out, the Steelers could be given six downs and struggle to pick up 10 yards.

65. Clay Matthews, LB, Packers (51)

It’s still strange that the Packers failed to address their need for an inside linebacker this offseason. It’s no surprise they moved on from A.J. Hawk and Brad Jones, but even with Sam Barrington locked in as a starter at one spot, couldn’t they have done something more than drafting Jake Ryan in the fourth round? Can they really be serious about leaving Matthews in the middle for a full season in 2015?

The Packers will undoubtedly move Matthews around some, but if his primary role is going to be as an inside linebacker, it’s just not an efficient use of personnel. Matthews has a $12.7 million cap hit in the third season of his five-year, $66 million contract extension. That’s reasonable money for an edge rusher, where he would slot in as the seventh-highest-paid player at his position, just behind Watt. At inside linebacker? After Matthews and Lawrence Timmons ($12.6 million), nobody else in the league is paying their middle linebacker more than $8 million. It should be easier to find a competent inside linebacker than it should be to find a replacement for Matthews outside.

64. DeAndre Levy, LB, Lions (66)

He’s another cover linebacker jobbed out of a Pro Bowl spot by his lack of sacks. Levy successfully covered Jordy Nelson on a must-have fourth down when the Lions beat the Packers in Week 3. Forget linebackers. Most cornerbacks can’t do that.

63. Jimmy Graham, TE, Seahawks (31)

Graham had six catches of 30 yards or more in 2011. After posting just one 30-yarder in 2012, he bounced back with eight more in 2013. And last year? Graham failed to pick up a single 30-yard catch. He was thrown shorter passes, with the average pass in the air toward Graham falling from 10.0 yards in 2013 to 8.5 yards last year, but the bigger concern was what Graham did with the ball in his hands, as he fell from 4.8 yards after catch in 2013 (above the tight end average of 4.5 yards after catch) to a lowly 3.3 yards after catch in 2014, just behind noted speedster … Owen Daniels. Given that YAC tends to be very inconsistent from year to year, it seems fair to bet on Graham for what amounts to a comeback season.

62. Chris Harris, CB, Broncos (NR)
61. Aqib Talib, CB, Broncos (NR)

I’m not sure how neither of Denver’s Pro Bowl–caliber cornerbacks made it onto the players’ collective ballot, given that this is the best 1-2 combination in the league. The only other corner combo to knock away 15 passes each last year was Cleveland’s duo of Haden and Buster Skrine. The Broncos also ranked among the top five in DVOA against both no. 1 and no. 2 receivers, a group in which they were joined only by the Bengals. While Talib got a mammoth deal from the Broncos in free agency last year, Harris took a deal that had other teams grumbling from the day it was signed.

On Friday, we’ll get to the top 60 players in the NFL. Well, the top 59 real human being football players to go along with J.J. Watt, the football cyborg hacker. But we’ll call it a top 60 for appearances’ sake.