We pick up the rankings with Gregggggggg Jennings. After this article, there remains only the top 20.
65. Greg Jennings, WR (GB)
64. Michael Turner, RB (ATL)
63. Dez Bryant, WR (DAL)
I love the way Dez Bryant plays. There’s just no way you can convince me that he doesn’t have the physical talents to be the best wide out in football. He’s too big, too fast, and utilizes contact better than any other receiver in the NFL.
62. Antonio Gates, TE (SD)
Gates must feel largely responsible for the recent influx of converted undersized power forwards into the tight end position. His dominance for the last eight seasons is simply without precedent. Gates has failed to play in every game for each of the last two years, which is probably the only reason he is not in the top 30.
61. Mario Williams, DE/OLB (HOU)
Remember when the Texans were crucified for passing on Reggie Bush for some nobody pass rusher named Mario Williams? Well, I’m sure Williams still remembers. A force since day one, Williams recorded 43.5 sacks and nine forced fumbles from 2007-2010 before missing all of this past year with, like Dumervil in 2010, a torn pectoral injury. Dumervil has since come back fine and Williams should see even more success in the upcoming season given the development of fellow pass rusher J.J. Watt.
60. Jake Long, OT (MIA)
Another number one overall draft pick, Long, like Williams, has played like it from the beginning. He has made an all-pro roster twice and the Pro Bowl roster four times. At 6’7’’, Long’s combination of size and speed was largely responsible for the success of the Wildcat in Miami a few years ago.
59. Matthew Stafford, QB (DET)
Yet another number one overall pick (I swear I didn’t do this intentionally), Stafford finally got a chance to shine this past season and shine he did. He eclipsed 5,000 passing yards and earned the Comeback Player of the Year award after suffering an injury to his right shoulder in 2010. Stafford is not the first quarterback to have his throwing shoulder surgically repaired and then go on to win the C-POY award the following season. Some bum named Drew Brees did it too.
58. Nnamdi Asomugha, CB (PHI)
Asomugha probably suffered the largest drop of any player from where he would have been ranked last season after what was actually not a particularly terrible year. His previous prestige was simply overplayed by being the only meaningful player in Oakland and the most prized possession of this past year’s free agents. Then again, it seemed to take the Eagles 10 weeks to realize he operates best in press man coverage and it is hard to fault Nnamdi for that.
|Expect a rebound year from Nnamdi in 2012.|
57. Ben Roethlisberger, QB (PIT)
Roethlisberger’s placement was among the more difficult decisions I had to make. His impressive career has been defined by unconventionality and winning as opposed to eye-opening offensive statistics. Is Big Ben an elite quarterback for 60 minutes of every game? No, probably not. However, for five minutes of seemingly every outing, he makes plays in which he looks like the best QB in the league. Almost surprisingly high, Roethlisberger’s career passer rating is 92.1.
56. Ray Lewis, ILB (BAL)
Another tricky placement, Lewis will turn 37 before the start of next season, although he was second team all-pro just one year ago and continued his dominance in 2011. His career resume might top all but two players on this list. However, it would be shocking to see Ray Lewis remain among the league’s elite linebackers for anything more than a year. Even just one more season at a super high level would justify as unmatched longevity.
55. Justin Tuck, DE (NYG)
54. Frank Gore, RB (SF)
53. Brandon Marshall, WR (MIA)
Miami is yet to use Marshall to his full potential, but this is to no fault of his own. When your wildcat “quarterback” is about as capable of throwing the ball down the field as your normal QB, things are going to be tough for receivers. Since his second year in the league, Marshall has average 95 receptions and just under 1,200 yards per season. His bi-annual physical battles with Darrelle Revis are especially competitive and entertaining.
52. Brian Urlacher, ILB (CHI)
Urlacher has been making all-pro rosters for a decade. The leader of what is always a sound defensive unit, Urlacher probably has two more quality years in him than does fellow future first-ballot hall of famer Ray Lewis. Not too much more needs to be said about this Chicago icon.
51. Cameron Wake, OLB (MIA)
After a quick calculation, I believe the only defenders to have more sacks than Cameron Wake over the last two seasons are DeMarcus Ware, Jared Allen, Jason Babin, Terrell Suggs, and Tamba Hali. Pretty good company.
The Top 50
(where it gets really interesting)
How Are They so Low?
50. Phillip Rivers, QB (SD)
Despite averaging 4,400 yards and 30 touchdowns over the last four seasons, there is no question as to which of the 2004 NFL draft first round quarterbacks (excluding J.P. Losman) has had the least impressive career to date. Many believed Rivers was ready for a MVP season in 2011, but inconsistent play and late game catastrophes eliminated that farfetched notion pretty quickly. Still, a certain degree of his 2011 under performing has to be due to the inconsistent running game and banged-up receiving options. Expect a rebound year from Rivers in 2012.
49. Victor Cruz, WR (NYG)
Make no mistake; Victor Cruz was a rookie this past season. Well, technically speaking, Cruz was not considered one since he played in the preseason and three regular season games (with 0 total receptions) last year. It’s too bad 2011 was Cruz’s second year in the league, because his 1,536 yards would have bested the 51 year old rookie receiving record set by Bill Groman of the AFL back in 1960.
48. Eli Manning, QB (NYG)
Everyone who’s listened to local NY radio stations knows Eli is the greatest Giants offensive player ever, better than Peyton Manning and Tom Brady (combined), one of the best athletes New York has ever seen, and a first-ballot future hall of famer. Everyone’s who hasn’t listened to local NY radio stations knows Eli is now in the “elite quarterback” category he so famously coined, a reliable fourth quarter performer, a tremendous leader, and four to five more pro bowl caliber seasons and/or an additional Super Bowl victory away from being in the hall of fame.
47. LaMarr Woodley, OLB (PIT)
|You can argue who is the best sack artist in football, but Woodley's|
post-sack celebration is clearly the best.
46. Jimmy Graham, TE (NO)
One of the league’s brightest stars, Jimmy Graham redefined what it means to play tight end this season and unluckily happened to do it in the same year Gronkowski had simply the greatest season ever for a tight end. In any other season, Graham is a unanimous first team all-pro selection. While the on-field play of the two tight ends is similar, they appear to be light years apart off it. I don’t know if Saints fans should be relieved or bummed out that their tight end, keeps his shirt on, is not best friends with a porn star, and no soy fiesta.
45. Logan Mankins, OT (NE)
44. LeSean McCoy, RB (PHI)
I got a lot of outside opinions while making this list. Two people put McCoy in their top ten.
43. Dwight Freeney, DE (IND)
With essentially one move, Freeney has terrorized offensive tackles for a decade. He fell one and a half sacks short this past season of hitting double digits for the eighth time.
42. Derrick Johnson, ILB (KC)
Three seasons from now one of the biggest keys for defensive units will be limiting big plays from the tight ends. 2011 first team all-pro, Derrick Johnson, was one of the biggest reasons Kansas City excelled at that defensive objective. No team allowed fewer receptions to the tight end and their 46.4 tight end receiving yards against per game ranks seventh.
41. Justin Smith, DT (SF)
If you want to see the definition of consistency, look no further than Justin Smith, the 3-4 defensive linemen. Big tackles like Smith are rarely sack masters. His 10 seasons of over five sacks through 11 years in the league is remarkable.
40. Jason Babin, DE (PHI)
39. Jonathan Joseph, CB (HOU)
At least in terms of man coverage abilities, Joseph is probably the second best corner in football. Although he has been an effective corner for much of his six-year career, 2011 was the break out one for Joseph, who came to Houston from Cincinnati last off-season. He finished the year with four interceptions and was largely responsible for Houston’s third ranked pass defense.
38. Brian Cushing, OLB (HOU)
37. Adrian Wilson, S (ARI)
36. Jason Peters, OT (PHI)
Rare for an offensive tackle, Peters began his NFL career as an undrafted free agent. Since then he has worked hard to become one of the league’s best O-linemen. He made three second-team all-pro rosters from 2007-2010 and got a first-team placement in 2011. As the left tackle in Philadelphia, Peters has the arduous task of blocking for a quarterback that sees the pocket as a one of many options for places from where to pass. Amazingly, Phili ranked ninth best in sacks allowed this season.
Über Game Changers
35. James Harrison, OLB (PIT)
When James Harrison threatened to retire amid the new safety rules of the NFL, many hard-nosed players, both past and present, agreed with Harrison’s position. Then he took it too far. His October 17 game in 2010 was the turning point from “yeah, you have a point” to “everyone else has figured out how to handle the rules, now you need to.” However, the reason he continues to rack up fines faster than an 18-wheeler parked next to a fire hydrant is the same reason why he is so great. Harrison’s been going H-A-M for five good years now and has 54 sacks and 27 forced fumbles over that stretch.
34. Maurkice Pouncey, C (PIT)
33. Roddy White, WR (ATL)
32. Matt Forte, RB (CHI)
If anyone had what it took to snatch the MVP award away from Aaron Rodgers in 2011, it was Matt Forte. The Chicago running back/primary receiving option had nearly 1,500 all purpose yards through 12 games before going down with an injury. Including the game he went down, the Bears went 1 – 4 without their star runner before starting the season 7 – 4 with him.
31. Von Miller, OLB (DEN)
For the second year in a row, the top two picks of the NFL draft went on to win offensive and defensive rookie of the year awards respectively. Von Miller finished second among rookies with 11.5 sacks.
30. Charles Woodson, CB (GB)
|He certainly does not have the man coverage abilities of some|
of the other corners on this list, but he is a playmaker in every sense
of the word. You just have to wonder how much is left in the tank.
29. Darren McFadden, RB (OAK)
As fantasy owners can attest, McFadden was off to a roaring start in 2011 before getting injured. He had 614 rushing and 154 receiving yards through seven games. The most telling statistic of all: McFadden has averaged 5.27 yards/carry and 6 yards/touch over the past two seasons. Thirty might seem high, but I truly expect McFadden to eclipse 2,000 all-purpose yards in 2012.
28. Clay Matthews, OLB (GB)
Everyone’s favorite long mane defender (sorry Troy), Matthews busted onto the NFL scene with 23.5 sacks through his first two seasons. He posted a career-low six sacks this past year, but made up for it with career-highs in forced fumbles (3), interceptions (3), and pass deflections (9). At the age of 25, it’s hard to imagine Matthews will finish his career with anything less than five all-pro mentions.
27. Tamba Hali, OLD (KC)
Who has the most sacks from the 2006 NFL draft? Here’s a clue: It’s not Mario Williams. The hybrid linebacker/D-end has 26 ½ sacks since 2010, leading the AFC in sacks two seasons ago. Pass rushing linebackers get a lot of public attention and interest, but Hali too often fails to be mentioned with the likes of Matthews, Harrison, and Suggs.
26. Ndamukong Suh, DT (DET)
Forget about the stomp and fines (never mind the fact that he is the most charitable athlete in America according to Forbes); there may be no defensive player in the league as physically gifted as the 2010 defensive rookie of the year. Stafford and Calvin Johnson deserve credit for the Lions recent success, but you can make a valid argument that Suh is the true catalyst. Detroit has had a good offense before, but the defense in 2011 was miles ahead of any other recent unit. The attention that Suh receives in the middle of the field has allowed defensive ends Cliff Avril (hindsight just-missed-the-top-100 guy) and Kyle Vanden Bosch to combine for 31.5 sacks over the last two years.
25. Maurice Jones-Drew, RB (JAX)
MJD is the only Jacksonville player in the top 100 and probably the top 250. There is literally no talent on this team outside of the human bowling ball, which makes all his accomplishments that much more impressive. He led the league in rushing yards this past year and has averaged a remarkable 1694 all purpose yards and 12 total touchdowns over the last four seasons. If you aren’t satisfied with those types of numbers from your running back then you need to do some serious soul searching.
24. Ray Rice, RB (BAL)
Rice is basically the second coming of Jones-Drew in terms of both production and stature. The average for his last three years: 1961 total yards, 10 touchdowns.
23. Jahri Evans, OG (NO)
22. Carl Nicks, OG (NO)
Which superstar guard is more valuable for New Orleans? I could not decide. They have a combined 5 all-pro appearances over the last three years. There is no Drew Brees shoot-out spectacular without these two absolutely owning the line of scrimmage on every single play. There is no other team in the NFL that can compete with this type of protective talent.
21. Vince Wilfork, DT (NE)
Wilfork came as to close to breaking the top 20 as Gronkowski did to reeling in that hail marry pass. While he is not the highest ranked defensive tackle, no other player in the league can engulf the space like Wilfork. He’s also almost comically quick and, apparently, a ball-hawk.
Okay, we are closing in on the top. Does anyone want to try to guess everyone who makes the top 20?