Final Report Card Grades for the NFL's Top 100 Players
Way back in the early part of the season you saw a list of the Top 100 players in the NFL. It's time to use that almighty tool called hindsight to see just how well we did ranking the players, but also to look at how well the players did themselves.
See where our top players rank today, and if their stock is moving up or down.
This is what the grading scale looks like:
A: Player performed above his mid-season ranking
B: Player performed equal to his mid-season ranking
C: Player performed slightly below his mid-season ranking
D: Player performed well below his mid-season ranking
F: Player has regressed dramatically
100. Jared Veldheer, Offensive Tackle, Oakland Raiders
The mid-season ranking of 100 was based on a hot start by Jared Veldheer and the Oakland Raiders, but in hindsight this is too high for a player plagued by penalties who faded down the stretch.
Adding insult to injury, Veldheer is ranked higher than All-Pro candidate Jason Peters. I was off my rocker here.
Veldheer had a good season, but he's not ready for the spotlight of a top-100 mention.
Final Grade: C
99. Sean Weatherspoon, Outside Linebacker, Atlanta Falcons
You could make a strong case that Sean Weatherspoon is the best 4-3 outside linebacker in the NFL today. His blend of speed and instincts fueled an Atlanta Falcons defense that was much improved in 2011.
Weatherspoon was a Pro Bowl snub in my book. Clay Matthews made the game on reputation, Weatherspoon deserved a bid based on impact.
When the 2012 preseason list comes out, Weatherspoon will be a featured player. His stock is on the rise.
98. Geno Atkins, Defensive Tackle, Cincinnati Bengals
No defensive tackle played better this season, in my estimation, than Geno Atkins. The youngster didn't make the Pro Bowl (a travesty), but he should make many All-Pro lists and ballots. Atkins is one defensive tackle the entire league is eye-balling.
As the Bengals make a playoff push, Atkins is the key component on defense. A big run by Cincinnati will put Atkins in the spotlight next season.
97. Philip Rivers, Quarterback, San Diego Chargers
Many would have burned me at the stake if I had placed Philip Rivers No. 97 overall before the season began. I would have voluntarily tied myself up for it. Looking at Rivers after the season, it really fits.
Rivers struggled through a bad 2011, both individually and as a team. He finally got hot late in the season, notably once tight end Antonio Gates was back healthy, but it was too little, too late.
Rivers has talent, but he needs to bounce back in a big way in 2012. And he'll have to do that with his top two wide receivers (Vincent Jackson and Malcom Floyd) entering free agency.
96. Josh Sitton, Offensive Guard, Green Bay Packers
Josh Sitton is one of my favorite interior linemen to watch, but I may have jumped the gun on him here.
Sitton has powered a good offensive attack, but he also has the NFL's best quarterback behind him. Sitton is good, but he's also benefiting here from the product of the entire offense.
Sitton has talent, no doubt, but he's not likely to be included in any preseason top-100 lists.
95. Chris Myers, Center, Houston Texans
I dare you to find a center who played better than Chris Myers this season. And yet he didn't make the Pro Bowl. I could rant for hours on that subject alone. The point is, Chris Myers is really good.
Myers' play didn't drop off despite four quarterbacks being used this season. You can't underestimate the importance of a great center when four different sets of hands are reaching into his nether-regions to take the snap. Myers excelled all season.
Myers' was fairly graded here and would enter the 2012 season as a top-100 player.
94. London Fletcher, Inside Linebacker, Washington Redskins
There are two ways to look at London Fletcher.
1) He's a consistent, stable leader in the middle of a much improved defense.
2) He will be 37 next season, is a free agent, and destined to drop off.
Both arguments are logical, and both have their merits. If you rank Fletcher on his 2011 season, he's easily in the top 100. If you rank him on 2012 potential, it's reasonable to expect a drop-off.
I'm going the potential route, as Fletcher can only be expected to show a drop-off in talent and production heading into 2012, but this list is about right now. And if we set out to rank the top 100 players of 2011, Fletcher would be on the list.
93. Lardarius Webb, Cornerback, Baltimore Ravens
You want to talk about a guy playing well above his ranking? That's Lardarius Webb.
No cornerback in the NFL has me more excited for the start of the 2012 season. Webb is poised to explode next season. If he's somehow still under your radar, it's time to expand your network. Webb graded out as a top-five cornerback for me this year.
The stock report on Webb would be up. In fact, the stock report should probably read "way up." Webb has All-Pro potential.
92. Ryan Mathews, Running Back, San Diego Chargers
Ryan Mathews got the nod here about more popular running backs due to his hot start in 2011. Then, the fumbles started and he got hurt.
There is no doubting that Mathews is talented, but he's struggled to stay healthy in each of his two seasons, and to date hasn't been the factor back the Chargers (and fans) expected him to be.
When a 2012 list is published, or even an updated 2011 list, Mathews won't make the cut.
91. Carl Nicks, Offensive Guard, New Orleans Saints
Carl Nicks doesn't get a ton of credit outside hard-core football circles, but he should. Over the last three seasons, no interior offensive lineman has been more consistent and more productive. Nicks is entering elite status at offensive guard. It's time fans take notice.
Nicks' play warranted a top-100 ranking at the mid-season mark.
If looking at Nicks again after the season, he would easily be a top-75 player. He's the best guard in the game, and his stock should reflect that.
90. Eric Weddle, Safety, San Diego Chargers
As writers, we get to go back and read our old work and wonder, "What the hell was I thinking!?". This is one of those instances.
Eric Weddle led all safeties in interceptions, notched 70 tackles and allowed a passer rating of 25. He's much better than I gave him credit for in Week 8. Mr. Weddle, my apologies.
When a new list is published, Weddle should be in the top 50. Few safeties, if any, are playing at his level.
89. Lance Briggs, Outside Linebacker, Chicago Bears
Lance Briggs has been a long-time favorite among football fans as one of the best 4-3 outside linebackers in the game. Briggs has made seven Pro Bowl teams and three All-Pro selections. A great career, for sure.
His 2011 season wasn't as great, but Briggs is still a force to be reckoned with. There's a good chance he notches his fourth All-Pro selection this winter.
88. Jason Witten, Tight End, Dallas Cowboys
The evolution of the tight end position leaves many of us left wondering how to rank Jason Witten.
If you look at the tight end as a blocker and receiver, few players are better than Witten. If you take a progressive approach and look at tight ends as only receivers, Witten is merely top-tier. So, which is it?
I grade on both—blocking and receiving—trying to weigh what the player is asked to do in each scheme. And on that logic, Witten is the fourth best tight end in football, which makes his ranking here spot on.
87. Ray McDonald, Defensive End, San Francisco 49ers
Among the most underrated players in all of football, Ray McDonald is an active, aggressive defensive end who excels as a pass-rusher from the five-technique position, but has also shown value as a run-stopper.
There are few 3-4 ends I would take over McDonald, one of them being his teammate Justin Smith. McDonald is active, strong at the point of attack and everything teams wants in a 3-4 defensive end. When it's all said and done, McDonald would move up the list considerably.
86. Eric Wood, Center, Buffalo Bills
A knee injury shut Eric Wood's season down shortly after the midseason report. Up until that point, few centers in the NFL were playing better.
Wood has been a long-time favorite of mine. If he can come back strong in 2012, he will finally get the recognition he's deserved since entering the league in 2009.
The injury hurts, basically resetting Wood's season. He wouldn't make the top-100 going into 2012.
85. Cam Newton, Quarterback, Carolina Panthers
Cam Newton's impact on the Carolina Panthers' 2011 season, and beyond, has been impressive. Remember that everyone thought Newton would have to struggle and learn for years before he would be ready to lead an offense and become a playmaker in the NFL.
We were wrong—Newton is getting it done already. His impact on the Panthers and the NFL is large. Once the Panthers start winning, and that will happen soon, Newton's impact will be even bigger.
A goal of mine is to re-work the Top 100 for a postseason look. Newton will likely be in the top 10.
84. Chris Long, Defensive End, St. Louis Rams
Chris Long enjoyed his best season as a pro, which would warrant a substantial move up in the rankings after the season. A lone bright spot on an otherwise miserable season, Long deserves credit for his hard work and production.
That being said, looking ahead, no player in St. Louis will feel the loss of head coach Steve Spagnuolo more than Long. Spagnuolo was a major reason that Long turned the corner, ditching the "bust" label and coming alive under the defensive-minded coach.
Based on the 2011 season, Long would move up. Looking ahead to a potential 2012 list, it would be hard to justify a move.
83. Charles Johnson, Defensive End, Carolina Panthers
The Carolina Panthers made a dramatic improvement from their two wins of 2010. Expect another big push in 2012, thanks in large part to Charles Johnson.
Johnson signed a big contract before the 2011 season. In my estimation, he lived up to it. Johnson finished the season with 10 sacks, six quarterback hits and 32 quarterback pressures (source: ProFootballFocus). That's an impressive season, considering the lack of an elite defensive tackle next to him.
82. NaVorro Bowman, Inside Linebacker, San Francisco 49ers
When you're having a good enough season that people start to wonder if Patrick Willis was overrated, you should be higher than No. 82 on the list.
NaVorro Bowman was starting to make a name for himself at midseason. By now, he's a legitimate Pro Bowl contender, in the running for most improved player and a true leader on the San Francisco defense. Teamed with Willis, the 49ers have a damn fine duo at inside linebacker.
81. Brian Cushing, Inside Linebacker, Houston Texans
Since making the move to inside linebacker in Wade Philips' 3-4 defense this season, Brian Cushing is playing like a new man. Or, more accurately, like the old man who terrorized the NFL during his rookie season.
Cushing is a matchup nightmare for offensive linemen. He's too fast to block with a guard and too strong to block with a fullback or tight end. How to block Cushing on A-gap blitzes and even outside runs will be a problem AFC South offenses face for the next decade.
80. Brandon Flowers, Cornerback, Kansas City Chiefs
Brandon Flowers' play over the last three seasons for the Kansas City Chiefs solidifies his status as a top cornerback. Without the benefit of safety help this season due to Eric Berry's injury, Flowers has stepped up, proving to be one of the elite cornerbacks in the NFL.
Flowers may not be on the level of Lardarius Webb or Darrelle Revis. If we were grading his ranking here, he's probably a tad overrated.
79. Jay Ratliff, Nose Tackle, Dallas Cowboys
Whether it was the change to defensive coordinator Rob Ryan, or the short offseason, something changed for Jay Ratliff this season, as his play hasn't been as dominant as in years past.
Two years ago, I would have put Ratliff and Vince Wilfork as my ideal 3-4 nose tackles—and he's still close, but he's no longer that elite player I held in such high regard.
Ratliff is still a top player, hence his ranking here. He's a stout run-stopper at the point of attack and a player teams have to double if they hope to run the ball in the middle of the field. He's widely respected by offensive linemen and persons in the media.
78. Logan Mankins, Offensive Guard, New England Patriots
Logan Mankins may be one of the more overrated players in the NFL, and I say that as someone who really enjoys watching Mankins play—but his play has slipped considerably.
An All-Pro last season despite starting just nine regular season games, Mankins has been up and down this season.
Mankins had a good season, but he was over-shadowed by the play of teammate Brian Waters. Mankins is incredibly solid, and would be worth a nod here again in a postseason list.
77. Marshall Yanda, Offensive Guard, Baltimore Ravens
Marshal Yanda is hands down one of my favorite players in the NFL to watch. He's tough, rugged and versatile. Having played right tackle last year, he's moved back to his natural position of guard and is once again dominating in the trenches.
Yanda does an excellent job as a pass blocker, which makes sense due to his comfort in space. Among all starting guards I've scouted this year, Yanda is the best at standing up and punching to protect his quarterback.
He's not just a finesse blocker though, Yanda is a top-five road grader when it comes to opening holes in the run game.
76. Marcell Dareus, Defensive Tackle, Buffalo Bills
Few players get me as excited as Buffalo Bills defensive tackle Marcell Dareus (please imagine I said that with zero sexual innuendo, if you can). Having said that, in hindsight, he shouldn't be this high. For damn sure, he shouldn't be ahead of Cam Newton.
Dareus has been a non-stop force for the Bills this season. His 2.5-sack game from nose tackle in Week 8 against the Washington Redskins proved that Dareus is capable of both stopping the run and rushing the passer.
75. Daryl Smith, Outside Linebacker, Jacksonville Jaguars
The 4-3 outside linebacker position has become overlooked by the more flashy 3-4 outside linebacker spot. But don't sleep on Daryl Smith.
Smith has taken the NFL by storm this season with outstanding play. His Week 5 game against the Cincinnati Bengals is one of the better displays of how to play the position I have seen in sometime. He followed that up with a huge game against the Baltimore Ravens in Week 7.
Smith may never make an All-Pro team. He's not that well-known, but he's playing better than almost any other 4-3 outside linebacker in the NFL.
74. Andy Levitre, Offensive Guard, Buffalo Bills
Andy Levitre has elevated his play this season, rising from a player with great potential to a simply great player. He's dominated at guard and tackle this year, filling in when needed on the left side, and doing well in both positions. Levitre's athletic ability makes him the best screen-blocking guard I've seen all season.
However, as much as I like Levitre, he's not the best guard in football as I have him ranked here. This is one of those times I'd like to click the "Edit Article" buttons and change history.
73. Derrick Johnson, Inside Linebacker, Kansas City Chiefs
Here is one of my all-time favorites as a draft prospect.
Derrick Johnson is an incredible athlete, but he's finally making the right reads and showing up all over the field. He's an interception magnet, quick enough to rush the quarterback and a fixture on tackles for the Chiefs defense.
Johnson isn't quite at the Patrick Willis level, but he's on the next tier right below it. This ranking is accurate.
72. Shaun Phillips, Outside Linebacker, San Diego Chargers
Were it not for injury, Shaun Phillips would be much higher on this list. When I first put together information for the list, Phillips' play had him in my top 50. Then he got hurt. After he came back, his play wasn't the same.
Phillips is uniquely talented, but he's yet to put it all together for one entire season. Based on his high ranking here, Phillips underperformed in the second half.
71. Dwayne Bowe, Wide Receiver, Kansas City Chiefs
Dwayne Bowe's season started out slow, but the entire Kansas City Chiefs roster started out slow. In Week 4, Bowe woke up with the offense finally getting into rhythm and showing signs of his 2010 self. Imagine Bowe with a viable quarterback for the entire season.
Bowe didn't finish as hot as expected, and some of that can be blamed on the quarterback situation, but he was over-ranked here.
70. Scott Wells, Center, Green Bay Packers
Few players hold as high regard in my mind as Scott Wells. An underrated center for the Super Bowl champion Green Bay Packers, Wells is quickly becoming one of the best at his position.
Unlike other elite players, Wells doesn't dominate in any one area. He does an excellent job with line calls, is a very good run- and pass-blocker and shows the perfect amount of agility to get out in space when the Packers run screen-and-toss packages.
69. Ryan Fitzpatrick, Quarterback, Buffalo Bills
If only I could travel back in time, just nine weeks ago, and slap myself in the face. I would do it.
Ryan Fitzpatrick bombed down the stretch, leaving the once red-hot Bills outside the playoffs and leaving his future with the team in doubt now that his contract extension is up for renewal this summer. Fitzpatrick was overrated at this writing.
68. Joe Haden, Cornerback, Cleveland Browns
With five interceptions in his rookie season, Joe Haden emerged as a player to avoid. Quarterbacks aren't challenging him much this season, but that's because Haden is allowing a completion percentage of just 49 percent.
Haden's stock continues to rise. He's on the precipice of being a top-five cornerback heading in to the 2012 season.
67. Andrew Whitworth, Offensive Tackle, Cincinnati Bengals
Andrew Whitworth is an excellent tackle, and an underrated one at that. He has top potential, and not just on the football field. Smart, articulate and mature, Whitworth has a bright future as a football player and not.
The second half of the 2011 season wasn't as kind to Whitworth, as he struggled against AFC North opponents. A few bad games won't spoil what's been an incredible season for Whitworth and the Bengals. A Pro Bowl invite is just around the corner.
66. Bryan Bulaga, Offensive Tackle, Green Bay Packers
I could like Bryan Buluga a lot more if he could stay on the field a bit more. Bryan Bulaga could be the best right tackle in football if he could stay healthy.
A much stronger run-blocker than pass-protector at this point in his career, you can see Bulaga getting better each week. He has the ideal size, agility and strength to become the NFL's best right tackle—if Green Bay keeps him there.
There's a belief that Bulaga will switch to the left side within the near future. I like him best on the right side, where I think he could become the best in the game.
65. Alex Mack, Center, Cleveland Browns
Here's one I'd like to have back.
I wisely, or not-so-wisely, proclaimed in the preseason that Alex Mack would be the best center in the NFL by the end of the season. Chances are, I was wrong.
Mack has the potential and talent to be great, but without a strong running game in Cleveland, his play is not as effective and therefore not as noticeable.
Do I still think Mack could be the best in the game? Absolutely.
Is he right now? Umm, no.
64. Matt Schaub, Quarterback, Houston Texans
It's hard to accurately grade Matt Schaub. When healthy he was having a great season, even without his top wide receiver, Andre Johnson. But Schaub did get injured, and he's battled injuries over the course of his career.
A total 2011 ranking would likely omit Schaub, or at the least see a massive drop in the rankings.
63. Mario Williams, Outside Linebacker, Houston Texans
Before suffering a season-ending injury in Week 5, Mario Williams was playing excellent at his new position of 3-4 outside linebacker. The fact that Williams played in just four games and change kicks him off our year-end list.
The Texans are playing well without Williams, but if he can recover (and is re-signed) for 2012 they'll be unstoppable on defense.
62. B.J. Raji, Defensive Tackle, Green Bay Packers
B.J. Raji comes with a ton of hype, but little production. I like Raji—he's fun to watch and provides a good laugh every few games for some wildly athletic play that no one expects from a man his size—but there are better defensive tackles. And don't even get me started on how Raji made the Pro Bowl over guys like Ray McDonald.
Raji is a fun player, but he's overrated. Even by me in the midseason rankings.
61. Maurice Jones-Drew, Running Back, Jacksonville Jaguars
I'll be honest and say Maurice Jones-Drew is one of my favorite players in the NFL simply for how he goes about his business. He's small, tough and takes a pounding as defense's stack the box. Now that I've admitted this, I wonder how the hell I had him ranked so low?
Jaguar fans, Mr. Jones-Drew and any fans of his should accept by sincere apologies. I'll do better next time around.
60. Matthew Stafford, Quarterback, Detroit Lions
It's great to see a healthy Matthew Stafford taking the field in Detroit this season for the Lions. Stafford and the Lions enjoyed a hot start to the season, putting them in the playoffs. Stafford's start was impressive enough to get him mentioned here at No. 60. His second half of the season would be good enough to have him in the Top 20.
Stafford lit up the NFL in the final eight weeks, becoming just the fourth player to ever pass for over 5,000 yards in a single season. Yes, he's good.
59. Stevie Johnson, Wide Receiver, Buffalo Bills
Sideline antics aside, Stevie Johnson was very good this season, especially before Ryan Fitzpatrick's second-half meltdown.
Johnson has become the go-to guy in Buffalo. Few wide receivers have the after-catch ability of Johnson, who is as dangerous as a receiver as he is a return man.
Johnson may not be a household name yet, but give it time and a more consistent quarterback. Based on Johnson's second half of the season, I couldn't rank him this high again.
58. Von Miller, Outside Linebacker, Denver Broncos
Here's the deal—I was way too cautious with Von Miller's ranking. Same with Cam Newton. I've learned from it, we're moving on. Miller is scary good. He will be top 20 on the 2011 review list.
57. Ike Taylor, Cornerback, Pittsburgh Steelers
I owe Ike Taylor an apology. Before the season I said he wasn't a top-15 cornerback. I stand by that still—he's not top-15, he's top 10. Or top 8.
I have a new found respect for Ike Taylor after watching him control and shut down Wes Welker and any other New England wide receiver in Week 8. Taylor has the ideal blend of physicality and speed to shut down the best of the best.
56. Julius Peppers, Defensive End, Chicago Bears
Julius Peppers has floated between the top 10 and top 60 for me over the last year, which really speaks volumes to the inconsistent nature of his play.
Peppers may be the most athletically gifted defensive end in the NFL, but his production is nowhere near players like Jared Allen or Jason Babin.
55. Rob Gronkowski, Tight End, New England Patriots
Well, at least I didn't just miss the mark when ranking rookies.
Rob Gronkowski is the best all-around tight end in football. Sure, some of that became evident after Week 8, but good golly I was off my rocker putting him so low.
Gronk set the single-season record for receiving yards and touchdowns by a tight end. He should be much higher.
54. Darren McFadden, Running Back, Oakland Raiders
Barring an injury that slowed him down the this year, Darren McFadden was on pace to really break out. Some would say he did last year, but to become a household name, this was his year. Unfortunately, it ended before he could really get going.
McFadden is a rare double-threat in the mold of Marshall Faulk and Marcus Allen in their youth. He has power to break tackles and run inside, but he's fast enough to run away from defenders once he finds daylight.
To ever reach his massive potential, McFadden has to stay healthy. He didn't in 2011, and his grade reflects that.
53. Jason Babin, Defensive End, Philadelphia Eagles
I have seen the argument that quarterback sacks are an overrated statistic, which would make players like Jason Babin overrated. I couldn't disagree more.
With 18 sacks on the season, Babin deserves to be much higher on the rankings. He started out hot and played consistent football all year, even when facing double teams and bigger blockers at left defensive end.
52. Ed Reed, Safety, Baltimore Ravens
It's amazing to see Ed Reed running around at 33 years old, intercepting passes and running them back for touchdowns. The legend of Ed Reed grows each week and each year.
Reed was fantastic in 2011, staying healthy and anchoring the defense during Ray Lewis' injury. That said, Reed's play did slip this season. If we were doing the rankings again, he wouldn't come out this high.
51. Brent Grimes, Cornerback, Atlanta Falcons
It was suggested via Twitter several days ago that Dunta Robinson might be better than Brent Grimes. That's blatantly not true. Robinson may make more, but he's not better.
Grimes is among the more underrated players in the NFL. Sure, he's getting Pro Bowl nods, but no one talks about Grimes in the Darrelle Revis/Nnamdi Asomugha category. And we all should be.
50. Vernon Davis, Tight End, San Francisco 49ers
Vernon Davis' production may be down this year, but his impact is not.
Davis is being used more and more as a blocker by the run-heavy 49ers, something he excels at. When looking at the complete picture of what a player does (impact, production, value), Davis makes a solid argument for best all-around tight end in the NFL.
49. George Wilson, Safety, Buffalo Bills
I have a serious man-crush on George Wilson of the Buffalo Bills. That's my only excuse for having him ranked so high.
Wilson did have an epic start to the season, but this was a little too optimistic. Wilson is an elite safety, give me that at least, but top 50 is crazy.
48. Brian Orakpo, Outside Linebacker, Washington Redskins
After all, Brian Orakpo is another word for "sack."
Sorry, I had to lead with that. Some Washington fans will tell you rookie Ryan Kerrigan is the better player. I couldn't disagree more. Orakpo was better all-around this year and only helps Kerrigan by drawing double-teams off the edge. Together the duo will wreak havoc for years.
47. LeSean McCoy, Running Back, Philadelphia Eagles
I like to randomly ask my Twitter followers questions like, "Best running back in the NFL after Adrian Peterson" just to get conversation started. I'll never argue with those who say LeSean McCoy. And with Peterson now nursing a tragic injury, McCoy has a chance to take the No. 1 spot for himself.
You will notice I had others ranked ahead of McCoy. He out-played his ranking in the second half of the season.
46. Matt Ryan, Quarterback, Atlanta Falcons
Matt Ryan's statistics may not impress you in 2011, but his play on the field should. Ryan has led the Atlanta Falcons from the basement right back into the playoff hunt in the loaded NFC South with excellent games over the last four weeks.
Ryan's numbers will never be overwhelming until his offensive line improves and Julio Jones emerges as a true No. 2 wide receiver—until then there will be good games and bad, but the talent level and production from Ryan combine to make him a scary quarterback for every NFL defense.
45. Frank Gore, Running Back, San Francisco 49ers
I have said for years now that if Frank Gore could just stay healthy and get a little help from the quarterback, he could lead the NFL in rushing. Gore was well on his way to making a run at it this year...until he got hurt.
Fans of the 49ers don't care about rushing titles. Gore has led the 49ers to a resurgence in 2011, including a home playoff game and No. 2 seed in the NFC. When given the choice of a rushing title or the playoffs, it's an easy choice for all involved.
44. Antonio Gates, Tight End, San Diego Chargers
Antonio Gates didn't look quite the same this year. Some of that is blamed on injury, some of it on Philip Rivers.
I have always tried to give credit where it's due, and Gates is an amazing receiver, but he's always shown very little as a blocker. Couple that with injury and a drop in production, plus the rise of younger players, and Gates' decline was inevitable.
43. Vince Wilfork, Nose Tackle, New England Patriots
Some may argue that Vince Wilfork is living off his reputation this season, and that is tough logic to shake.
Wilfork didn't have an elite season, but yet there is his on the Pro Bowl roster. Watch any New England Patriots game for five minutes and you see instantly that Wilfork looks sluggish this season.
I'm a Wilfork fan, but he needs to show a lot more before I can realistically rank him this high. Sione Pouha deserves this ranking.
42. Jason Pierre-Paul, Defensive End, New York Giants
When I was asked to write this article the one player I was afraid I had missed on (badly) was Jason Pierre-Paul. Turns out I was at least close.
There are few players in the NFL with Jason Pierre-Paul's raw ability. He's putting it to good use this season. Pierre-Paul was among the best players in the NFL over the last eight weeks of the season, earning a Pro Bowl invite despite not even being on the fan ballot.
Let's just say JPP would be much higher on a re-do of this list.
41. Troy Polamalu, Safety, Pittsburgh Steelers
Our No. 1 safety comes to you from the Pittsburgh Steelers, Mr. Troy Polamalu.
Yes, I realize we haven't seen Earl Thomas and Kam Chancellor yet. And that's a massive oversight that would be corrected.
Polamalu, on the other hand, has played well this season despite getting little national attention (I blame Tim Tebow). There isn't a safety I would rather build my team around than No. 43.
40. Michael Vick, Quarterback, Philadelphia Eagles
Michael Vick had a terrible 2011 season. His production was down, he was too often injured and his leadership of the team was questioned until Week 13, when it was almost too late to do anything about a season in the dumps.
39. Steve Smith, Wide Receiver, Carolina Panthers
You can bet that Steve Smith and the Carolina Panthers are glad they worked out their differences to keep him in town.
Smith has been re-born since teaming up with rookie quarterback Cam Newton this season. The Panthers offense is letting Smith get deep, something he wasn't allowed to do earlier in his career, and he's shown the deep speed and hands of a much younger man.
38. Ray Rice, Running Back, Baltimore Ravens
I took quite a bit of heat for ranking Ray Rice this high back in Week 8. I'm glad to see it paid off.
Rice has long been one of my favorite backs due to his short and stocky frame, tough running style and selfless attitude. In an age of me-first players, Rice is quiet and composed when things aren't going his way. Rice didn't speak out when the team gave him seven carries against the Jacksonville Jaguars, and he could have.
Put everything you want in a running back on a piece of paper, and Ray Rice is going to meet all of those needs.
37. Nick Mangold, Center, New York Jets
I am willing to concede that Nick Mangold is far and away the best center in the NFL. Period.
Mangold is on a different level in terms of talent and production. Even as the New York Jets struggle this season, Mangold is enjoying another All-Pro season as the captain of the Jets' offensive line. In a year where both sides of the ball fell apart, Mangold was his usual self.
36. Jimmy Graham, Tight End, New Orleans Saints
The best pass-catching tight end in football is Jimmy Graham. And Rob Gronkowski can get mad if he wants. The University of Miami product has quickly become the league's elite pass-catcher from the position, thanks in large part to Drew Brees' trust of Graham over the middle and in the red zone.
Graham may not be the elite blocker that Gronkowski is, but he's a more productive receiver. Graham's size and athletic route-running skills have made him an almost uncoverable presence in the middle of the Saints' spread offense.
35. Cameron Wake, Outside Linebacker, Miami Dolphins
I'm sure many will disagree with Cameron Wake being ranked so high, but I believe strongly in three numbers to gauge a rush linebacker's production.
Sacks: Wake is tied for No. 8 among outside linebackers with nine on the year.
QB hits: Wake is No. 2 among outside linebackers with 21.
QB pressures: Wake is No. 1 among outside linebackers with 52, and third in the NFL.
34. Carlos Rogers, Cornerback, San Francisco 49ers
Before the season, when free agency was just getting started, Carlos Rogers said, "I stack up with the best of them. When people compare my stats to [top corner Nnamdi Asomugha's], we're right there together. He's just a little higher. They say I don't catch the ball, but who's catching the ball on me?"
We thought he was joking. Turns out, he wasn't.
Rogers had a much bigger impact than Asomugha in 2011. He should be ranked ahead of him too.
33. Tamba Hali, Outside Linebacker, Kansas City Chiefs
I would rank Tamba Hali around the fourth or fifth best outside linebacker in the NFL. Maybe sixth on a bad day. Is that good enough to be ranked this high?
Hali is good, but he wasn't this good in 2011.
32. Jordan Gross, Offensive Tackle, Carolina Panthers
Jordan Gross has been overlooked his entire NFL career. I'm out to change that.
That Gross wasn't named to a Pro Bowl roster this season is a damn travesty. You're telling me Jermon Bushrod is a better player than Gross?
NFL fans, you kill me.
If Gross played in Green Bay, New Orleans or New England, we'd be talking about his All-Pro credentials.
31. Eric Winston, Offensive Tackle, Houston Texans
I'm asked often who the best players are at each position. It's a fun conversation, until I'm asked who the best right tackle is in the NFL. The answer is easy: Eric Winston.
I can't tell you how upset I am that Winston didn't get a Pro Bowl invite and Jake Long did after his injury-plagued season. Ask me to draw the ideal right tackle—I'm going to save time and print out a picture of Eric Winston instead.
30. LaMarr Woodley, Outside Linebacker, Pittsburgh Steelers
LaMarr Woodley continues to climb the ladder toward NFL excellence. Before long, we'll talk about DeMarcus Ware, Clay Matthews and LaMarr Woodley as the elite pass-rushers in the league—or are we already?
The only thing keeping Woodley from any official elite discussion was his 2011 injury. A healthy postseason will have Woodley back in the running.
29. Fred Jackson, Running Back, Buffalo Bills
Where would Fred Jackson be if he hadn't been injured this season? Better yet, where would the Buffalo Bills be if Jackson hadn't gotten injured?
Jackson was off to a freakish start to the season before going down with an injury. Based on his first 11 weeks of the season, I would be tempted to keep him on the rankings, but definitely not this high.
28. Richard Seymour, Defensive Tackle, Oakland Raiders
Richard Seymour had another good year, but not good enough to be invited to the Pro Bowl. And definitely not good enough to be ranked No. 28 overall.
Seymour is starting to show the decline many feared when he left New England. He can still be a dominant player from week-to-week, but this ranking has proven to be too high.
27. Nnamdi Asomugha, Cornerback, Philadelphia Eagles
Well, this was a bit optimistic.
You could argue that Nnamdi Asomugha wasn't even the best cornerback on his team in 2011, much less a top-30 player overall.
Asomugha looked woefully out of place in Juan Castillo's scheme in Philadelphia this season. Changes could be made to make Asomugha more comfortable in 2012, but based on this season alone, we'd have to move Asomugha way down.
26. Eli Manning, Quarterback, New York Giants
I would have never thought an article I penned would feature Eli Manning so high, but he's earned it. Manning has had a brilliant 2011 season.
Manning answered many critics this season, myself included, proving along the way that he can be a winning quarterback and not just a game manager. Eli stepped up, and he deserves at least this high midseason ranking.
25. Greg Jennings, Wide Receiver, Green Bay Packers
You can get in a pretty serious "chicken or the egg" argument over who makes who better in Green Bay—Aaron Rodgers or Greg Jennings.
I've decided it's both. Jennings benefits from having a great quarterback, and Rodgers benefits from having a great wide receiver. No one questioned whether Joe Montana made Jerry Rice great, or vice versa.
Jennings is once again having a monster season, which is quite impressive considering the talent around him at wide receiver and tight end in Green Bay. Jennings may not be the best wide receiver in the NFL, but he's in the argument for top 5, even after missing time with injury at the end of the season.
24. Joe Thomas, Offensive Tackle, Cleveland Browns
You could make a strong argument that Eric Winston or Jordan Gross are having a better season than Joe Thomas, but you won't convince me that either is a better offensive tackle.
Thomas is once again dominant from the left side in Cleveland, even with his starting left guard Eric Steinbach out.
Thomas remains the gold standard for me when looking at left tackles. His blend of size, strength and quickness are ideal for the position. Ideally, Thomas should be a top-10 player.
23. Ndamukong Suh, Defensive Tackle, Detroit Lions
I expect to hear spirited conversation about this, but Ndamukong Suh is overrated. There, I said it.
Suh had a great rookie season, but he has not matched that production or impact in 2011. In fact, he's very easy to scheme against. And this was pre-stomp on offensive linemen.
Suh has talent, but he's not matching it with effort, production or class. Yet. There's still time to turn things around.
22. Andre Johnson, Wide Receiver, Houston Texans
Were it not for injury, I believe Andre Johnson would be giving Calvin Johnson and those ahead of him today a run for their money. As it is, Johnson was injured and it brings his value down considerably.
A healthy Johnson (yes, go ahead and laugh) brings so much more to the table, but these rankings aren't about potential, they are about production in 2011. And because of that, Johnson has to move down.
21. Terrell Suggs, Defensive End, Baltimore Ravens
Terrell Suggs is one of the most unique players in the NFL today, if not ever. He lines up all over the field on any given play, causing confusion and panic for offensive linemen who are tasked with stopping him from destroying their quarterback. Usually, it doesn't work.
Suggs is great at sacking the quarterback, but he's also surprisingly talented at dropping into coverage and stopping the run. There are few players more well-rounded than Suggs in any NFL locker room. And that's why he's in the running for Defensive Player of the Year.
In fact, Suggs may have been underrated here.
20. Trent Cole, Defensive End, Philadelphia Eagles
I am a big fan of Trent Cole, hopefully you are too. If not, you should be by the time you finish reading this.
Were it not for injury cutting into his playing time, Cole's stats would look better to today's fantasy football-focused fans. Turn on the film and Cole jumps off at you. His all-around play is underrated by many who picture him as just a sack artist. He's so much more.
19. Matt Forte, Running Back, Chicago Bears
If only Matt Forte could have stayed healthy and finished the season.
Forte has been recognized as a top running back for several years now, but he broke into the top 20 players based on his ability to work as a runner and receiver in Mike Martz's offense. Forte has proven his worth as a go-to back, and his production shows that he's one of the more talented players in the league.
Based on 2011 production, Forte would be second only to Maurice Jones-Drew in total impact.
18. Ray Lewis, Inside Linebacker, Baltimore Ravens
Ray Lewis is still arguably the best middle linebacker in football. He must have heard the pundits claiming he had lost a step in 2010, because Lewis has been on a rampage all season.
What's scary is that Lewis is actually having one of his most productive seasons. He's averaging seven tackles per game, has two sacks and is getting into the secondary to help with deep zone coverage—and he's 36 years old.
A late-season injury slowed Lewis down for a few weeks, but he's back and ready to roll without showing any signs of dropping off.
17. Mike Wallace, Wide Receiver, Pittsburgh Steelers
I feel like I follow football pretty close, since it's my job and all, but I was shocked to see Mike Wallace this season. I noticed Wallace last year, and he had a good season, but I was ill-prepared for the explosion that would be Wallace's 2011 season.
Wallace may be Pittsburgh's best threat at wide receiver since John Stallworth and Lynn Swann were running fades. For all Hines Ward's greatness, he never exploited a defense like Wallace can.
16. Arian Foster, Running Back, Houston Texans
Some may have been down on Arian Foster after he missed the two of the first three games of the season with a hamstring injury. Not me.
Foster is quickly becoming one of the best all-around running backs in the NFL, proving that his breakout 2010 season was no fluke. Even more impressive, Foster is emerging as a threat as a receiver out of the backfield, with Andre Johnson missing time due to injury.
15. Wes Welker, Wide Receiver, New England Patriots
I feel like we're not talking enough about the fact that Wes Welker had 122 catches this year.
If Calvin Johnson is now generally accepted as the best wide receiver in the NFL, Welker should be No. 2 (or 1A).
Welker is too often overlooked because he's Tom Brady's receiver, or because he's short, or for other reasons unknown or unsaid. Fact is, no one downgraded the accomplishments of Jerry Rice because he played with a great quarterback. When did anyone overlook Reggie Wayne and Marvin Harrison because they had Peyton Manning?
14. Charles Woodson, Cornerback, Green Bay Packers
Guess who tied for the NFL lead in interceptions, again? Charles Woodson, of course.
Woodson may be starting to slow down at age 35, but he is still a player NFL offenses purposefully avoid when throwing the ball.
Woodson's legacy as a college player and as a pro is a great story, but his play in the here-and-now is good enough to put him face to face with any receiver in the league.
I have said before that I believe Charles Woodson is the best cornerback of all time.
13. Haloti Ngata, Defensive Tackle, Baltimore Ravens
As the kids say, Ndamukong Suh wears Haloti Ngata pajamas. Or something like that.
People around the league are too quick to point at Suh as the best defensive tackle in the game, ignoring Ngata's dominance at the position over the last five seasons.
Ngata is everything Suh and other young defensive tackles should aspire to be. He's a pass-rusher, a run-stopper and a versatile defensive lineman the Ravens can put anywhere on the line at any time. That's what gains respect, not quick upfield bursts that generate nothing positive for the defense.
12. Clay Matthews, Outside Linebacker, Green Bay Packers
Over the last 88 slides, I have talked a lot about impact. There are few defensive players who can impact a game or a game plan like Clay Matthews, Jr.
Having said that, at some point production does matter. And Matthews' production is just OK. His six sacks don't stack up against elite pass rushers like DeMarcus Ware, and he's too often penalized.
Given the totality of his season, I would move Matthews down.
11. Ben Roethlisberger, Quarterback, Pittsburgh Steelers
Ben Roethlisberger is a player who I have always felt was underrated—largely due to those not liking his off-field reputation. On the field, few are better at the quarterback position.
There are but a handful of players in the entire league I would choose to start my franchise with tomorrow over Roethlisberger.
The way the Steelers have transitioned from a power-run and defense team to a passing-attack team this season shows just how great Roethlisberger is.
10. Justin Smith, Defensive End, San Francisco 49ers
Man, you guys killed me for this one back in Week 8.
Those who follow me on Twitter know that I'm a big fan of Justin Smith's ability as a 3-4 defensive end. In fact, Smith would be my vote for NFL Defensive Player of the Year.
Smith's play has been excellent for years, but since he's not given a great score in Madden, few pay attention. Truth is, Smith's run as the model 3-4 defensive end over the last four seasons should garner him much more notice than it has.
As the 49ers make a run through the playoffs, look to No. 94 as the player who started the turnaround in San Francisco.
9. Drew Brees, Quarterback, New Orleans Saints
Let's see here: 5,498 yards passing, a new record, to go along with 46 touchdowns. And he's ranked No. 9 overall.
Yep, Drew Brees should be ranked about six spots higher.
8. Patrick Willis, Inside Linebacker, San Francisco 49ers
I would Patrick Willis down slightly from his midseason ranking, but this is still one of the NFL's most feared defenders.
Willis has consistently graded out as one of the best inside linebackers in the NFL since being drafted by the San Francisco 49ers in 2007—helping turn this struggling franchise into one of the best defenses in the league over the last four years.
For the money, there's no middle linebacker I would rather have.
7. Adrian Peterson, Running Back, Minnesota Vikings
Playing in just 12 games due to injury killed Adrian Peterson's season, and his chance to finally become the stand-alone elite running back in the NFL. We can safely say that Peterson has the talent, but can he stay healthy and can he recover from a gruesome knee injury to ever be the same again?
6. Jared Allen, Defensive End, Minnesota Vikings
Jared Allen is a freak.
Facing double and even triple-teams this season he still managed to sack the quarterback 22 times. Had Brett Favre not taken a dive for Michael Strahan, we would have a new sack king.
The No. 6 overall ranking is great, but Allen deserves to be higher.
5. Calvin Johnson, Wide Receiver, Detroit Lions
Oh, Calvin Johnson. You sir, are special.
Johnson is a touchdown machine, much in the same way Randy Moss was throughout his career. Few cornerbacks can handle Johnson's size and length, while safeties often underestimate his speed and end up on a highlight reel.
Johnson is high on my list of best players because of his impact to the game and the inability of defenses to cover him, not because of his technical ability or skills as an all-around receiver.
4. DeMarcus Ware, Outside Linebacker, Dallas Cowboys
DeMarcus Ware finished just 0.5 sacks short of becoming the first player ever to have two 20-sack seasons. I don't think any more needs said about this man and his exceptional abilities.
3. Darrelle Revis, Cornerback, New York Jets
I had planned to launch into a 250-word narrative here about how Darrelle Revis is changing the game of football with his true ability to eliminate one half of the field in coverage. While we applied the "shutdown corner" label to so many before him, no player I can remember intimidated quarterbacks like Revis.
Revis is special, whether we want to admit it or not, he's just damn good. Having said that, Jared Allen and DeMarcus Ware are better. And because of that, I would move Revis down in a re-ranking.
2. Tom Brady, Quarterback, New England Patriots
It hurts a little to put Tom Brady at No. 2, and that's no joke. I've long been a leader of the Brady fan club. In the early days, I fought the good fight on forums when people argued that Peyton Manning was better. I gloated when Brady won three Super Bowls, set an NFL record for touchdown passes and led his team to an undefeated regular season.
Sadly, his reign at the top is over. But hey, it was a good ride.
Some of you may even think Brady is still too high. To that, I say there is only one player I would even consider drafting ahead of Brady if the NFL made every player available tomorrow.
1. Aaron Rodgers, Quarterback, Green Bay Packers
The only player in the NFL right now that I would want over Tom Brady is Aaron Rodgers.
At 27 years old, he has won a Super Bowl, led his team to 15-1 record and broke every passer rating record ever set. Rodgers is the definition of efficiency, and his Green Bay Packers are favored to win another Super Bowl this season.
Rodgers' play this season cannot be described as anything less than brilliant.
Here is a list, by position with no specific order, of players who would be added in a re-ranking.
Andy Dalton (Cincinnati)
Michael Turner (Atlanta), Marshawn Lynch (Seattle), Darren Sproles (New Orleans), Steven Jackson (St. Louis)
A.J. Green (Cincinnati), Victor Cruz (NY Giants), Larry Fitzgerald (Arizona), Jordy Nelson (Green Bay), Marques Colston (New Orleans), Antonio Brown (Pittsburgh), Dez Bryant (Dallas)
Tony Gonzalez (Atlanta), Aaron Hernandez (New England), Heath Miller (Pittsburgh)
Tyson Clabo (Atlanta), Tyron Smith (Dallas), Duane Brown (Houston), Jason Peters (Philadelphia), Eugene Monroe (Jacksonville)
Calais Campbell (Arizona), J.J. Watt (Houston)
Sione Pouha (New York), Alan Branch (Seattle)
Aldon Smith (San Francisco), James Harrison (Pittsburgh), Kamerion Wimbley (Oakland)
D'Qwell Jackson (Cleveland), Sean Lee (Dallas), Paul Posluszny (Jacksonville)
Cortland Finnegan (Tennessee), Johnathan Joseph (Houston), Asante Samuel (Philadelphia)
Earl Thomas (Seattle), Kam Chancellor (Seattle), Jarius Byrd (Buffalo), Adrian Wilson (Arizona)
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