Wednesday, February 8, 2012

Ranking the Top 100 Players in the NFL; The first 35

With the 2011 NFL season in the books, it’s never too early to look ahead to next year.  In what will be a multi-column article, I have attempted to rank the NFL’s top 100 players heading into the 2012 season.  It is my hope that at the conclusion of this I will accept that football is over, at least for a few months, and that I will be ready to write about other sports.  But until then…

This is not a prediction of who will be the best player five years down the road from now nor is it meant as a list of the players with the 100 best careers thus far (Ray Lewis will not be in the top 10).  I’m not giving bonus points for previous Super Bowls and I’m not reducing the value of players on underachieving teams.  This list is not meant as a preview of which players will have the best statistical seasons as ranking by this method would make certain players rely heavily on others (a running back and his line, a wide out and his quarterback).  In other words, a player’s position on this list would not change if he were traded into a better or worse situation.  The list simply answer’s the question, who are the league’s 100 best players? 

In creating this hierarchy, I attempted to treat all positions equally.  However, there’s just no way a team would ever trade the number 100 player on the list for even the best kicker, punter, or long snapper in football. As such, no one from said positions made the cut, although Sebastian Janikowski and Andy Lee topped the kicker and punter positions respectively.  Fifty-seven offensive players made the final list.  There are 13 quarterbacks, 13 half backs, one full back, 14 wide receivers, five tight ends, and 11 offensive linemen.  Two of the offensive players who I selected were chosen, at least in part, for their special teams talents.  The 43 defensive players were composed of 16 linebackers, 15 defensive linemen, seven cornerbacks, and five safeties.    

Comparing players of different positions is nearly impossible.  I found the most challenging aspect of this process to be correctly placing the offensive linemen as well as the recent surge of defensive talent that has made its way into the league over the last two seasons.   

Creating this was as inexact as it was opinion.  Anything formulated under these two pretenses should be seen as a subject of debate.  So… let the debating begin.

Just Missed it: Steve Smith (WR), Brandon Flowers (CB), Champ Bailey (CB), David Harris (ILB), Sebastian Janikowski (K), Marshawn Lynch (RB), Trent Cole (DE), London Fletcher (ILB), Chad Greenway (ILB), Steven Jackson (RB), Robert Mathis (DE), Chris Long (DE) 

The Top 100
(where it gets interesting)

Pro Bowl Level

100. Joe Haden, CB (CLE)
Right off the bat, I was forced to deal with a stellar defensive player from the 2010 draft.  The ex University of Florida standout has all the talent to have an island of his own and has performed as well, if not better, than did all-world cornerback, Darrelle Revis, through the first two seasons of his respective career.  Statistics rarely do cornerbacks justice, but one needs to look no further than the 22 year old Haden to understand why Cleveland had the number two pass defense in the league.  They were sensational defending wide receivers, allowing an average of 8.4 receptions and 116.6 yards per game to the position.  Those numbers rank first and second league wide. 
Don't be surprised to find Haden in the top 30 by this time next year;
he could easily be an all-pro in 2012
99.  Earl Thomas, S (SEA)
Another 2010 draft product, Thomas has been a consistent tackler his first two seasons in the league.  He was elected to the second team all-pro roster in 2011. 

98. Marshal Yanda, OG (BAL)
97. Carlos Rodgers, CB (SF)
96. Darren Sproles, RB/KR (NO)
Sproles set a record in 2011 for total yards by one player in a single season (rushing + receiving + return).  Sproles has always been a defensive nightmare, but he took his scampering to new heights in New Orleans and made the departure of Reggie Bush completely forgettable.  With all of the Saints’ great receivers, it was Sproles who Brees often went to with the game on the line.  His value cannot be overlooked. 

95. Andy Dalton
My vote for 2011 Rookie of the Year, Dalton exceeded all expectations.  He and a player later to be named led a young Cincinnati offense to the postseason while playing in one of the league’s most difficult divisions.  He might just be the best ginger in all of modern American team sports.   

94. Matt Ryan, QB (ATL)
Ryan has been a good player since day one, but after having perhaps the best ever rookie campaign for a quarterback (pre Cam Newton), I would have expected to see more from him at this point in his career. 

93. James Laurinaitis, ILB (STL) 
Laurinaitis quietly put together a stellar season, racking up 142 total
tackles, 3 sacks, and 2 interceptions
92. Hakeem Nicks, WR (NYG)
91. Jason Witten, TE (DAL)
Like many Cowboys, the 2011 season was not one of his best.  However, there is still no way any top tight end list can be without him.  Even in an off year, Witten came within 58 yards of reaching the 1,000 mark for the third year in a row and fourth time in five seasons. 

90. Brian Orakpo, OLB (WAS)
89. Joe Staley, OT (SF)
88. Duane Brown, OT (HOU)
87. Dwayne Bowe, WR (KC)
Last 2 season averages for Bowe: 76 receptions, 1157 yards, 10 touchdowns.  Imagine what he’d do with someone other than Cassel throwing it his way. 

86. Lance Briggs, OLB (CHI)
85. Devin Hester, WR/KR (CHI)
How does someone who only touches the ball 4-5 times per game make the list?  Easy.  Even when he’s not getting the ball in the return game, Hester forces teams to sacrifice upwards of 15 yards of field position by punting it away from him.  He’s the best return man the game has ever seen.  With another 5-6 seasons at his current pace (which would be a significantly longer shelf life than any other previous return specialist), Hester might become the first ever special teamer to go to Canton.  If you’re still not sold, ask yourself this: Do any of the players listed below Hester garner as much opposition planning, shifting, and changing? 

84. Osi Umenyiora, DE (NYG)
Want a frightening football image?  Umenyiora played alongside top 25-er DeMarcus Ware and 2004 Pro-Bowler, Marcus Washington, in high school.

83. Chris Johnson, RB (TEN)
Undoubtedly, Johnson could just as easily have been placed in the top 25.  Then again, the enigmatic CJ was not even among the top 200 players for much of the 2011 season.  He topped the 100-yard mark on the ground once through the first eight weeks and finished a game with fewer than 65 rushing yards 12 times. 

82. Eric Weddle, S (SD)
It’s taken a lot of effort, but I have finally been able to get this out of my head (in case you missed it, he’s the teddy bear that Shonn Greene pounds to the turf about 10 yards into the run).  His all-pro status in 2011 has earned him the right to crack the top 85.

81. Julius Peppers, DE (CHI)
For 10 years (I can’t believe he’s been in the league for 10 years already), Peppers has been a dominating force rushing the passer.  Peppers has exactly 100 sacks for his career and 19 since moving to Chicago.  He also happens to be the best kick blocker in all of football – and it’s not even close, doing it nine times over the last six seasons.  

I Wish He Was on My Team

80. DeMarco Murray, RB (DAL)
It remains to be seen how Dallas will handle what has become a loaded backfield, but there should be no question as to which runner is the best.  Murray had limited playing time in 2011, but for a month long stretch from October 23 to November 24, he produced a jaw-dropping total of 761 rushing yards.  At that rate, he would have surpassed 2,000 yards over a 16 game span. 
Murray could be a top 5 running back by year's end.  
79. Ryan Clady, OT (DEN)
Who was most responsible for Denver’s number one ranked rushing attack in 2011?  Obviously it was Tim Tebow and, with his gift of charisma, he motivated Ryan Clady to continue his dominance at the left tackle position.  In doing so, Tebow (in)directly made minivan sized running lanes.  Clady entered the league in 2008 and has remained among the top tackles since then.  He was voted second team all-pro his rookie season, first team all-pro in 2009, and a pro bowl replacement this past one. 

78. Peyton Manning, QB (IND?)
I really could have put Manning anywhere on this list and had that spot make both a ton of sense and no sense at all.  If the neck injury continues to be an issue heading into the 2012 season, then he really shouldn’t be on this list at all.  If he comes back healthy, then Manning would obviously move into the top five.  I thought #78 was an interesting placement.  Should the Colts decide to part ways with perhaps the greatest quarterback of all time, I think they would be thrilled to receive any of the mid-70 ranked players.  Likewise, I wonder how many milliseconds it would take for Denver to make a Clady-Manning deal. 

77. Vernon Davis, TE (SF)
76. Wes “The Common Cold” Welker, WR (NE)
Peyton Manning once called Brandon Stokley one of the greatest slot receivers of all time.  If that’s true, then Welker has to be number one.  Don’t let Gisele fool you.   

75. Vonta Leach, FB (BAL)
Some might balk at a full back being ranked within the top 75, but Leach’s success speaks for itself.  Leach spent 2011 with Ray Rice and the Ravens after spending the previous season in Houston, where he allowed Arian Foster to emerge as one of the league’s best backs.  Rice and Foster have a combined 2,980 rushing yards with Leach on their respective teams.  Still think he’s too high?

74. Asante Samuel, CB (PHI)
73. A.J. Green, WR (CIN)
Uh, yeah. 

72. Cam Newton, QB (CAR)
Newton exceeded all expectations in his rookie season.  The first overall draft pick singlehandedly reignited Steve Smith’s career and somehow made a six win team relevant and highly entertaining.  Hopefully, Newton will not suffer from the post-rookie year plateau as have so many promising rookie quarterbacks over the last five years.  He broke a lot of records this season; look them up if you care. 

71. Geno Atkins, DT (CIN)
70. Aldon Smith, OLB (SF)
Who?  Rookie Aldon Smith did not start a single game in 2011, but finished the year with 14 sacks, half a sack short of the rookie single season record set by some guy named Jevon Kearse.  Too high?  Perhaps, but don’t be surprised when Aldon Smith joins the slew of San Francisco defenders in the top 50 by the end of the upcoming season. 
In Kearse's second season he came close to bringing home Defensive
Player of the Year honors (won by Ray Lewis).  Will Smith be able
to top that?
69. Michael Vick, QB (PHI)
If I had made this list at the conclusion of last year, Vick would have found himself in the top 20.  However, after a challenging 2011 campaign, I think the truth is Vick can never been a consistent quarterback.  He is a magnet for crunching hits and doesn’t know how to take a sack, often spending too much time dancing around pass rushers instead of getting rid of the ball.  As much as he’d like to tell you his countless, un-penalized big blows are due to unjust officiating, the truth is when Vick is not leaving the pocket he’s moving like a running back inside of it.  Defenders have to hit him hard to bring him down, a la Ben Roethlisberger who also receives little support in terms of roughing the passer penalties.  Defenses are beginning to adjust to Vick’s style of play, but I am a firm believer in the fact that he must continue to do all those things that make him so inconsistent and vulnerable.  Like countless great modern athletes, Michael Vick spends too much time concerned with what people think and critique about his game.  If he wants to be worth that massive contract from last offseason, Vick needs to continue to be the scrambling, unpredictable quarterback that has brought him past success. The paradox is, though, that same style is the exact reason he cannot make it through a season.

68. Mike Wallace, WR (PIT)
67. Elvis Dumervil, DE/OLB (DEN)
After recording a league-leading 17 sacks in an all-pro effort in 2009, Dumervil missed all of last year with a torn pectoral muscle but returned in 2011 to record 9.5 sacks.  Dumervil is just 28 years old and seems to be well beyond any linger effects from the injury.  

66. Tony Romo, QB (DAL)
Dallas certainly fell short of its goal, but Romo produced maybe the best statistical season of his career.  He threw 31 touchdowns compared with only 10 interceptions.  Had he been able to connect with Miles Austin on this pass, the Giants would be chilling in Jersey without a Super Bowl title. 

Let that simmer for a bit.  I will release the next thirty soon.


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