The Top 100 NFL Players So Far This Season
There's one thing about football that will never change, and that is its unpredictability. Teams that you are sure will win a game might go out and lay an egg, while teams you don't believe have a shot may end up winning in a blowout.
The same can be said for individual players as well. It doesn't matter what you have done or haven't done before in the NFL. Every year, you have to go out and prove yourself again. The guys that can perform at a high level year in and year out are the guys who have long and productive careers.
Now that three games are in the books, we get to take a look at the guys who were expected to ball, as well as some players who have seemingly come out of nowhere. Ahead, we put them all together and rank the best 100 players in the NFL right now.
100. Jon Beason
After three games, he has 22 total tackles, two passes defensed and an interception. His stat sheet might not wow you, but when you watch the games, some of his hits will make you jump out of your seat.
As long as he keeps playing with the same kind of fire, I am sure the statistics will come eventually.
99. Andre Brown
Brown has shown very good vision, the ability to get tough yards between the tackles and even some speed when bouncing it outside. I'm not sure how many opportunities he will get when Bradshaw is healthy again, but he has shown that he is fully equipped to carry the load whenever he is called upon.
98. Ryan Fitzpatrick
After three games, he has 581 yards passing with eight touchdowns against three interceptions. Fitzpatrick has also been using his legs; he has only been sacked once, and he has rushed for 52 yards on 12 carries.
He has done all this with his two top running backs being in and out of the lineup with injuries.
After being mowed down in a loss to the New York Jets to start the season, Fitzpatrick has bounced back and helped his team win the two following games. With a 2-1 record so far, the Bills are still sitting pretty, and they owe it in large part to his play so far.
97. Akeem Ayers
The Tennessee Titans haven't had many bright spots so far this season, but one of them has definitely been the play of linebacker Akeem Ayers. After three games, Ayers has notched 36 total tackles, a sack and two passes defensed.
If he continues to have this kind of production, he will likely eclipse his rookie numbers from last year before the halfway point of this season. He has already made a huge leap forward this season; now he just needs to get everyone else on his team to play to his level.
96. LaRon Landry
Now healthy after a few years in and out of the training room, Landry is lighting people up every chance he gets. He has brought a physicality to the position that was one of the few things the Jets had been missing on defense.
After three games, he has 16 total tackles with a forced fumble, and just about every one of those tackles were big hits.
He isn't just a hitter, however.
On the downside, Landry has already drawn too much attention from the replacement refs for some of his big hits, and the personal foul penalties have hurt his team. He has to rein in his aggression to avoid those flags.
If he does and stays healthy, he is primed to have a career year.
95. London Fletcher
Fletcher has pretty good statistics with 22 total tackles, three passes defensed, an interception and a forced fumble. You really can't understand how well he has played in his 15th season, however, unless you've seen him play.
If you happened, for instance, to see him cover New Orleans Saints running back Darren Sproles one-on-one several times in the season opener and win plenty of those matchups, you know that Fletcher has been balling.
So far this season, he hasn't shown any signs of slowing down at all.
94. Pierre Thomas
I can't for the life of me understand why the New Orleans Saints aren't using running back Pierre Thomas more, but it can't be for lack of production. Even though Thomas only has 19 carries on the year, he is averaging over seven yards a carry.
Thomas has also been productive in the passing game, catching nine passes for 100 yards with a more-than-respectable 11.1 yards per catch.
Pierre Thomas remains one of the hardest running backs in the NFL to tackle, but the Saints seem to be too busy drawing up passing plays to notice. After three games, the Saints still haven't won a game, so maybe they will at least consider including him more in the game plan going forward.
Or maybe that's just too much to ask.
93. Ronde Barber
There were questions at the start of the season about how well longtime Tampa Bay Buccaneers veteran cornerback Ronde Barber would adjust to being moved to safety. After three games, I think it's safe to say that the transition hasn't been a problem at all.
After three games, Barber has 13 tackles, a sack, five passes defensed and an interception. As has been the case for most of his 16-year career, he just always seems to be around the ball. The Buccaneers defense is much improved since last year, and Barber's play has definitely been one of the reasons why.
As he continues to get adjusted to playing the position, I expect his play will continue to improve all season.
92. Randy Starks
After three games, Starks has 11 total tackles and three sacks. Finally in a 4-3 scheme to which he is better suited, Starks is flourishing as an interior pass-rusher so far this season.
Starks isn't a one-trick pony, however. He has played the run as well and done a good job of getting penetration into the backfield on a consistent basis.
If Starks continues his strong production, he looks primed to have a career year.
91. Vernon Davis
San Francisco 49ers tight end Vernon Davis gets overshadowed at times by a few other tight ends around the NFL who have these ridiculously high catch numbers, but in my opinion, he can play with the best of them.
So far this season, Davis has 13 catches for 169 yards and four touchdowns in a 49ers offense built more for running the ball than throwing it. He continues to be a matchup nightmare for opposing defenses because he is too fast for most linebackers to cover and too big for most defensive backs.
Davis is also a willing blocker in the running game, and he appears to have improved in that area this season. That was the one remaining hole in his game, and it looks like he has fixed it.
As the season goes, I would expect Davis' role to continue to expand. He has already been a weapon in the red zone, and if given more opportunities, he can make big plays out in the field as well.
90. Dwayne Bowe
This, despite the fact that Bowe missed most of training camp due to a contract dispute.
As Bowe continues to get in game shape and get his timing down with Matt Cassel, I would expect to see his numbers to keep going up. There are very few NFL cornerbacks who can handle him one-on-one.
89. Drew Brees
New Orleans Saints quarterback Drew Brees is off to a good start in every statistical category, save one—completion percentage. The fact that Brees is completing less than 55 percent of his passes can explain most of what ails the winless Saints offense.
Yes, he has passed for 904 yards with seven touchdowns and five interceptions, which would be considered a good start to the year for most quarterbacks, but the Saints offense is best when it has sustained drives.
Although the Saints always had the ability to strike quickly, in general what they did was make first down after first down until they got into the red zone, and then they'd punch it in for a touchdown. That's why, in the previous five years, Brees had never completed less than 65 percent of his passes.
When he isn't connecting with his receivers at a high rate, that means drives are stalling and the Saints are having to punt. With a team built around its offense, that is a recipe for trouble.
Obviously not having suspended head coach and offensive coordinator Sean Payton around has had a tremendous negative effect on Brees as well as the rest of the Saints offense, but it's still early, and they have plenty of time to turn it around.
What I imagine is that soon they will learn to lean more heavily on their running game, which will take a lot of pressure off of Brees and open up passing lanes downfield on play-action pass.
At least, that is what I would do.
88. Dennis Pitta
Baltimore Ravens tight end Dennis Pitta is off to a fast start this season. His 18 catches for 188 yards after four games is almost half of what he produced in both categories for a full season last year.
His two touchdown receptions are one off the career high of three he had last season.
It's obvious that Pitta is coming into his own in his third year, and the game appears to have slowed down for him. If he continues to improve and play at a high level, the Ravens will have a legitimate weapon in the passing game at tight end.
87. Kyle Williams
After three games, the "other" Williams already has notched three sacks to go along with nine total tackles.
Considering the fact that his previous high for sacks in a season was five-and-a-half, Kyle Williams looks to be having a career year if he can stay healthy.
86. Stephen Nicholas
So far he has notched 26 total tackles, two passes defensed, an interception and a forced fumble in three starts. He epitomizes the ball-hawking style with which the Falcons are playing this year.
On a defense with several standouts, he still manages to shine, especially when you watch the film.
85. Kevin Kolb
Kolb is currently sporting a quarterback rating of 108.6, which is far and away the best of his career and good enough for third in the NFL. He has also thrown four touchdowns without a single interception.
Kolb has also shown his mobility in avoiding pass-rushers, running for 32 yards and a touchdown so far.
I can't believe many people expected Kolb to perform this well after having been benched going into the first regular-season game. His strong play is a major reason the Cardinals are undefeated at 3-0 to start the season.
84. Adrian Peterson
Watching Minnesota Vikings running back Adrian Peterson perform makes it almost impossible to believe he tore his ACL less than a year ago. I was worried that he had come back too early, but it's hard to say that when you see him play.
For the season, Peterson has rushed for 230 yards and two touchdowns on 58 carries. He is even getting in the act in the passing game, with six receptions for 44 yards so far.
If Peterson can stay healthy and avoid re-injuring that knee, I have no reason to believe he won't continue to be productive, In fact, at this point I am so impressed that I wouldn't put being a top-five rusher by the end of the season past him.
83. Carson Palmer
Just to look at Oakland Raiders quarterback Carson Palmer's stats you might get the impression that he had played well to start the season. He has thrown for 879 yards with five touchdowns and only two interceptions. He is also completing over 62 percent of his passes.
So why haven't the Raiders won more than one game?
It's not all Palmer's fault obviously, but he doesn't seem to be pushing the ball down the field much. He is choosing instead to take the shorter, safer throws, but the Raiders can't seem to sustain drives, which is what you need to do in an offense of that nature.
For so long the Raiders have been known for chucking the ball down the field, and in some cases they've been criticized for it. This season, ironically, not taking those shots is likely what has been holding them back.
82. Martellus Bennett
After four underachieving years with the Dallas Cowboys, it appears New York Giants tight end Martellus Bennett is finally starting to play to his potential. After three games, he has 15 receptions for 185 yards and a most impressive three touchdowns.
Considering the injuries the Giants are dealing with on offense, Bennett's production is a welcome surprise. If he continues to play this well for a full season, he may turn out to be one of the biggest free-agent pickups of this offseason.
81. Ray Lewis
After three games, Lewis has notched 33 total tackles, a sack, a pass defensed and a forced fumble. Even with reigning Defensive Player of the Year Terrell Suggs out with an injury, Lewis has managed to keep the Ravens defense humming, which has helped them to a 2-1 record thus far.
Lewis might not still be the best inside linebacker in the game, but with how he is playing this year, he isn't far from it.
80. Willis McGahee
If the Broncos are going to be successful this year, they will need a strong running game to complement quarterback Peyton Manning throwing the ball. After a 1-2 start, maybe the answer is to lean even more heavily on McGahee's shoulders to take some of the pressure off Manning.
With only 50 carries so far, I would say it's fair to assume that McGahee could use more work anyway.
79. Roddy White
Every week, he seems to make a circus catch look easy.
His teammate and fellow wide receiver Julio Jones has received more attention this year, but it's White who continues to be the lead dog when the games start.
78. Jerrell Freeman
After three games he has notched 27 total tackles, a sack, a forced fumble, a pass defensed and an interception that he took back four yards for a touchdown.
The Colts are still early in a transition from a 4-3 to a 3-4 defense, but Freeman has shown so far that he can fit right in with the new scheme.
77. Tony Romo
In spite of having a shaky offensive line in front of him, Dallas Cowboys quarterback Tony Romo is off to a good start. He is completing almost 65 percent of his passes for 841 yards and four touchdowns against three interceptions.
Those numbers aren't outstanding on paper, but when you look at the games and notice how much Romo is being pressured, you realize he has played better than his statistics.
One major improvement from last year's start is that he isn't making the critical turnover in crunch time and is instead playing winning football in the fourth quarter.
If he continues to play with consistency and the offensive line improves, I would expect another outstanding year from Romo.
76. Von Miller
Denver Broncos outside linebacker Von Miller is one of the most explosive defensive players in the NFL right now. He hasn't had as many opportunities to rush the passer this year with the defense's switch to a 4-3 from a 3-4, but he has still managed to come home with three sacks and countless other pressures.
He only has 10 tackles after three games, however, and he needs to be more involved in stopping the run in his new role.
Still, he is making plays, and opposing offenses have to account for him every single play or he will make them pay.
75. Reggie Bush
His 302 yards on the ground rank him fourth in the NFL currently, and he is averaging six yards a carry to go with two rushing touchdowns. He also has 72 receiving yards and continues to be a matchup problem in the passing game for opposing defenses.
One thing is for sure: The Dolphins offense is really going to miss him if he has to sit out for a while.
74. Jason Pierre-Paul
The impact New York Giants defensive end Jason Pierre-Paul has on games can't be measured just by a stat sheet. So far this year, he has given fits to whomever he has lined up across, and he has been a thorn in the side of every offense the Giants have faced.
His statistics aren't bad, as he has notched 15 total tackles, 1.5 sacks and two passes defensed. You come away much more impressed when you watch the film, however.
Then, you might see him shed a tight end and make a play on the running back on the other side of the formation before he can get through the line of scrimmage, as he did in a win over the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.
Even though his sack numbers aren't high, he has gotten a lot of pressure on opposing quarterbacks and forced several holding calls at key moments. I'm positive that the big sack numbers will come, as long as he keeps playing the way he has to start the season.
73. Stevan Ridley
He has also caught five passes for 51 yards, showing his versatility as a complete back.
As long as the Patriots have Tom Brady at quarterback, they will never be mistaken for the old Pittsburgh Steelers' run-first teams. If Ridley keeps improving, however, the running game will be a lot more than an afterthought this year.
72. Geno Atkins
Cincinnati Bengals defensive tackle Geno Atkins just continues to prove he was one of the steals of the 2010 NFL draft. After making the Pro Bowl last season with 7.5 sacks, he has already notched three this year after only three games.
If there is one area the Bengals defense has excelled in this year, it's getting after the opposing quarterback. Every game, you see Atkins leading that charge from the interior, and if he continues to have this kind of production all year, he is going to have a monster season.
71. Dwan Edwards
The Carolina Panthers made a bold move just before the regular season began when they cut second-year starting defensive tackle Terrell McClain and replaced him with Dwan Edwards, who had just been cut by the Buffalo Bills.
So far, the gamble has paid huge dividends for the player as well as the team.
Edwards has already eclipsed his career high for sacks in a season after only three games in a Panthers uniform. With 3.5 sacks, he also leads the NFL in that category for defensive tackles.
It appears that the Panthers defense was a perfect match for Edwards' skill set, and if he continues to play this well, more people will take notice.
70. Alex Smith
You can't call San Francisco 49ers quarterback Alex Smith just a game manager any more. This guy actually makes plays now rather than focusing on just not making mistakes. That he has picked his play up this season so far should be scary for the rest of the teams on the 49ers' schedule.
Smith is completing almost 70 percent of his passes, and he has already thrown five touchdowns against just one interception.
If he can keep up that kind of production, the 49ers should make playoffs again this year, and nobody will want to face them.
69. Mason Foster
After three games, he has 26 total tackles, a pass defensed and an interception. More importantly, he is now playing without hesitation, which has helped him make a ton of tackles for loss already.
After his play in the middle last year, I questioned if it wouldn't be better to have Foster move to the outside. His reactions appeared too slow, and he was stuck on blocks far too often. This year he is playing with a lot more confidence and speed, which is translating into him making a lot more plays.
Whatever questions there were about his ability to play in the middle have been erased by his performance in the first three weeks.
68. Michael Boley
New York Giants outside linebacker Michael Boley is putting up defensive back numbers right now with three interceptions after only three games. That's just one behind the leader of the NFL in that category.
If you thought maybe he was just being lucky, then I would point out he has had an interception in each of those games.
To go along with the interceptions, Boley has notched eight total tackles,half of a sack and three passes defensed so far.
This is all the more impressive considering he didn't even start in the first game.
67. Alfred Morris
Washington Redskins rookie running back Alfred Morris is quickly making a name for himself in the NFL. After three games, he has 263 rushing yards and three touchdowns on the ground after going from fourth string in training camp to starter by the first regular-season game.
Fellow Redskins rookie quarterback Robert Griffin III gets most of the attention, but Morris has been impressive as well. If those two can stay healthy, the Redskins will have a dynamic backfield for many years to come.
66. Robert Mathis
Quite a bit has changed about the Indianapolis Colts in the last year, but one thing that hasn't is if their defense is on the field, Robert Mathis is going to be getting after the opposing quarterback.
After three games, Mathis has already recorded four sacks, and maybe most impressively, he has had at least one in each game. He also has a forced fumble to go along with 15 total tackles.
If the beginning of this season has been any indication, Mathis' move to outside linebacker has gone off without a hitch.
65. Haloti Ngata
Not only is Ngata once again playing the run in the opposition's backfield, he is also getting after the quarterback this season. After three games, he has two sacks to go along with 20 total tackles.
Considering the way the Ravens use Ngata as more of a run-stuffer that keeps offensive linemen off the inside linebackers, that sack total is pretty impressive.
If he can continue to provide that kind of productive pass-rushing inside all season, it will definitely help the outside linebackers the Ravens have who are trying to fill Suggs' shoes.
64. Brent Celek
While much of the Philadelphia Eagles offense has been sputtering, tight end Brent Celek has been balling so far. With 14 catches for 258 yards, he has 44 more receiving yards than the next-closest tight end.
He is also averaging over 18 yards per reception, which shows an ability to make big plays down the field.
Maybe what the Eagles really need to do to get their offense going is find more ways to get him the ball in the passing game, because he is cooking when he gets opportunities.
63. Bernard Pollard
Baltimore Ravens safety Bernard Pollard has been playing this season with a linebacker-type mentality when lined up in the box. After three games, he has already racked up 20 total tackles while hammering opposing players whenever he gets a chance.
Pollard hasn't just been a run-stopper, though. He also has four passes defensed and an interception on the season as well. Those are pretty impressive numbers for a guy who is mostly known for his physicality.
With Pollard playing this well, he and Ed Reed form one of the best, if not the best safety tandem in the NFL.
62. Jerod Mayo
He has been a tackling machine so far this season, notching 33 tackles altogether.
He has also been solid in coverage, and it appears that that's why most quarterbacks haven't tried to test him very often in the passing game.
As he continues to grow more comfortable playing in a 4-3 full-time, I expect he will only get better as the season goes on.
61. Henry Melton
Chicago Bears defensive tackle Henry Melton is one of the best young defensive linemen in the NFL. After three games, he already has three sacks and has been a disruptive force up field against the run.
The Bears defense has been playing lights-out to start the season, and Melton's performance has been a major reason why. Now, as teams have to pay more attention to trying to block him pass-rushing from the interior, the result is his teammate Julius Peppers is getting more one-on-one opportunities on the outside.
If the Bears offense ever gets on track so they are playing more with a lead, there is no telling the kind of sack numbers Melton will be able to put up this season.
60. Danny Amendola
Only one wide receiver in the entire NFL has more catches than the St. Louis Rams' Danny Amendola. If that surprises you, you aren't alone. Amendola's name doesn't usually come up in a discussion of elite wide receivers.
You can't overlook what Amendola is doing for the Rams, however, and his stats speak for themselves. He has 25 receptions for 296 yards and a touchdown, which is more than you can say for a lot of guys with bigger names.
So far, the Rams have only won one game, and it's not a coincidence that it came on a day when Amendola was outstanding. If he can continue to put up these kinds of numbers, I imagine he will force his way into the top wide receiver conversations.
59. Michael Bennett
Tampa Bay Buccaneers defensive end Michael Bennett has been killing it so far this season. He is playing in opponents' backfields against the run and relentlessly getting after opposing quarterbacks when they drop back to pass.
After three games, Bennett has three sacks, including two in last week's loss to the Dallas Cowboys. Bennett also has forced two fumbles and has a pass defensed as well. He is also versatile enough to play defensive tackle on passing downs and gets pressure from there as well.
The Buccaneer defense has been playing a lot better this season, and Bennett is a major reason why.
58. Christian Ponder
I admit that Ponder's leap forward this season has totally taken me off guard. It's not like he is passing for a ton of yards, but what he is doing is playing highly efficiently. After three games, he has completed just over 70 percent of his passes, the second-highest percentage in the NFL.
He has also passed for 713 yards with four touchdowns against no interceptions.
On that note, I'm starting to think the Mayans were right.
57. Cortland Finnegan
Cornerback Cortland Finnegan has brought his physical, trash-talking style to the St. Louis Rams, and he is already having a positive effect on their defense. Even though the Rams have only won one game out of three so far, they were in all of them going into the fourth quarter.
That's a marked improvement from their performances last year.
Finnegan has been playing at a high level and has already notched 18 tackles, six passes defensed and three interceptions, one of which he returned for a touchdown. So far, his production has totally justified the big contract the Rams offered him to bring him in the fold.
It will take some time to change the culture of losing in St. Louis, but with Finnegan on the team, don't count on it taking too long.
56. Gerald McCoy
He is tied for second in sacks in the NFL among defensive tackles (three) to go along with eight total tackles and a forced fumble. He is also getting a lot of penetration against the run and blowing up plays on a regular basis.
The problem, as most know by now, is that McCoy has ended both of his first two seasons on injured reserve. For that reason it's hard to trust that he will stay healthy.
If he can, however, it looks like double-digit sacks might be in his future this season.
55. Matt Schaub
After three games he has completed over 65 percent of his passes for 751`yards with five touchdowns against only one interception.
The Texans are still a run-first team, and I don't expect that to change any time soon. When they do throw the ball, Schaub is torching opposing defenses.
If he continues to play this well, the undefeated Texans won't lose a game for quite a while.
54. D'Qwell Jackson
Unfortunately, Jackson's strong play hasn't translated into any wins for the Browns so far.
If he keeps making big plays like this for the rest of the season, the Browns will eventually shock some people.
53. Chad Greenway
Vikings linebacker Chad Greenway is off to a fast start this season. After three games he has 33 total tackles to go along with two sacks and two passes defensed. His sacks and passes defensed totals have already equaled his production for each of the previous two seasons.
With the new attacking style of defense brought in by first-year defensive coordinator Alan Williams, it appears that Greenway will be put in position to make more plays than he was in recent years.
So far, he is making the most of those opportunities and is being a major thorn in the side for opposing offenses.
52. Victor Cruz
After a forgettable game against the Dallas Cowboys to start the season, New York Giants wide receiver Victor Cruz has his game back on track. He is one of the toughest covers in the entire NFL working out of the slot position, and he also has enough speed to beat you deep down the field.
After three games, he has 23 catches for 279 yards and a touchdown.
51. DeMarcus Ware
He has also notched 18 total tackles and two forced fumbles even while being the focus of most opposing offense's protection schemes.
If these are the kind of performances Ware can produce this season while he is nicked up, the rest of the teams on the Cowboys schedule better hope he never actually starts to feel good.
50. Tom Brady
New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady is once again lighting up NFL defenses this season. He has completed almost 67 percent of his passes for 887 yards with four touchdowns against only one interception. Those are some impressive numbers to be sure.
The Patriots are only 1-2, however, so what gives?
Well, the loss of tight end Aaron Hernandez to injury has surely made their offense less explosive. The Patriots are also having some offensive line issues of their own, which means Brady is getting pressured a little more than usual.
Still, if Brady continues to play at this high level, I expect that the Patriots will work out their other issues and get back to winning games really soon.
49. Kurt Coleman
After three games, he already has 21 total tackles along with two interceptions and three passes defensed.
Last year, much of the blame for the Eagles' defensive woes fell on the safety position.
While getting to a 2-1 start as a team, Coleman has shown he won't be the weak link this season.
48. DeMeco Ryans
The Philadelphia Eagles had major problems in the middle of their defense last year, so they decided to trade for middle linebacker DeMeco Ryans to help fix that problem. So far the move is paying big dividends.
After three games, Ryans has 18 total tackles, a sack and a pass defensed. You can't really measure what Ryans has brought to that Eagles defense solely by a stat sheet, however.
Last year, the Eagles looked absolutely confused at times. This year Ryans is getting people lined up correctly and playing with the kind of fire and intensity that is contagious.
The truth is, had it not been for the defense playing so well in its first two games, the Eagles likely would have lost with the way their offense has been sputtering and turning the ball over. Ryans definitely deserves a lot of credit for why they are playing so much better this year.
47. Reggie Wayne
He has 23 receptions for 294 yards and a touchdown after three games. That yardage is good enough for fifth overall in the NFL.
The Colts have only won one game so far, and it looks like they are in for another long year. Still, fans have to appreciate having someone like Wayne on the team. He's a guy that just consistently makes plays, no matter what.
46. Tramon Williams
Green Bay Packers cornerback Tramon Williams has bounced back well from a disappointing 2011 season so far. The Packers like to play a lot of different versions of man-to-man, and he has been outstanding in coverage this season.
After three games, Williams has two passes defensed and two interceptions to go along with 10 total tackles.
If Williams continues to play this way, I expect opposing quarterbacks will learn to not test him.
45. Heath Miller
Pittsburgh Steelers tight end Heath Miller is one of the most dependable guys at his position in the NFL. He may not have the speed or quickness of some of the other top guys playing tight end, but he finds a way to get open and doesn't drop many passes.
In fact, even though he has just 15 catches so far, four of them have gone for touchdowns.
Miller is also a willing run-blocker—something you can't necessarily say about a lot of pass-catching tight ends. In him the Steelers have a guy who seems to truly embody the spirit of the team as a blue-collar guy who just plays hard-nosed football at all times.
44. Michael Johnson
In his fourth season, Cincinnati Bengals defensive end Michael Johnson is finally start to fulfill his potential. He has always shown flashes of pass-rush ability, but he hasn't yet notched more than six sacks in any of his first three seasons.
This year, after just three games, he has already come home with four. I think it's safe to say that if Johnson stays healthy, he should have double-digit sacks by the end of the year.
More importantly, if he and his defensive linemates can continue to put regular pressure on opposing quarterbacks, they will have a much better chance of making the playoffs this year.
43. Steve Smith
Carolina Panthers wide receiver Steve Smith is once again quarterback Cam Newton's favorite target, catching 14 passes for 296 yards after three games. In his 12th season, he continues to be a downfield threat, boasting an impressive 21.1 average per reception.
There may be better wide receivers in the NFL, but none have more heart than Smith. He goes out there every week and takes monster hits and just bounces back up and keeps coming back for more.
The Panthers need him to continue to play at a high level, because there aren't many other good options in their passing game.
42. William Moore
Atlanta Falcons safety William Moore has been one of the biggest surprises of the season in my book. After three games, he already has notched 20 tackles, a sack, a forced fumble, four passes defensed and two interceptions.
He has also been a physical presence against both the run and the pass, never missing an opportunity to put a big hit on an opposing player.
The Falcons are undefeated so far, and they appear to be one of the top teams in the NFL. At least on defense, Moore has played a big role in helping along that perception.
41. LeSean McCoy
Of course, he doesn't call the plays, so there isn't much that he can do about that.
When he has had opportunities, he has been impressive.
In three games, he has notched 261 yards on the ground with one touchdown. His 4.5 yards per carry aren't spectacular, but considering how poorly his offensive line has blocked for him at times, it is still very impressive.
One area that McCoy can control is fumbles, and he has had two already this season, which ties the most he has had in any season since coming into the NFL. Ball security is something he and the rest of his teammates on offense are going to have to emphasize for the rest of the season.
If McCoy can get those fumbles behind him and the Eagles decide to give him more opportunities every game, I believe he will show yet again that he is one of the best running backs in the NFL by the end of the year.
40. Jimmy Graham
New Orleans Saints tight end Jimmy Graham has been one of their few bright spots for the Saints this season. Though the team has yet to register a win, Graham has continued his dominant play from a year ago.
After three games, Graham has 17 catches for 172 yards and three touchdowns. Some of the catches he makes against hapless defenders almost seem unfair.
If the Saints are going to get their season back on track, Graham will have to continue that level of dominance all year.
39. Ed Reed
Baltimore Ravens safety Ed Reed is still a quarterback's worst nightmare. He already has two interceptions and four passes defensed, even though opposing quarterbacks continue to try to do everything in their power to avoid him.
Reed has also been more physical in the running game than I have seen him in recent seasons. I don't know if that means his neck is feeling better, but I do know he hasn't turned down a hit that I've seen.
Everyone knows the Ravens are missing one of their best players in outside linebacker Terrell Suggs, but with the way Reed and others on that defense are picking up the slack, they still have a good chance of winning the division or making the playoffs this season.
38. Brandon Browner
At 6'4" and 221 pounds, Seattle Seahawks cornerback Brandon Browner is one of the most physical defensive backs in the NFL. He has 11 total tackles, two passes defensed, an interception and a forced fumble after three games.
With the replacement refs in place, Browner absolutely abused wide receivers at the line of scrimmage and beyond. Even when they manage to get off the line, he sticks to them like glue, making it hard for opposing quarterbacks to complete the ball to anybody he is covering.
Coming off a Pro Bowl performance in 2011, Browner has continued to show that he is one of the top cornerbacks in the league.
37. Tony Gonzalez
After three games, Gonzalez has hauled in 21 catches, the top mark for tight ends in the league. He has 214 receiving yards along with three touchdowns through the air. If he has lost a step, it's hard to tell.
With Gonzalez continuing his high level of production, the Falcons offense is riding high this season.
They are undefeated so far, and Gonzalez is a big reason why.
36. Andy Dalton
He has passed for 867 yards with six touchdowns against just three interceptions so far. His completion percentage is a very impressive 68.4 percent, and his quarterback rating is at an even 105. Dalton and A.J. Green continue to be one of the best young quarterback/wide receiver tandems in the NFL.
Dalton's performance so far is a huge reason why the Bengals are sitting at 2-1 after three games, and he has given me no reason to believe he won't continue to play that way.
35. Johnathan Joseph
After three games, Joseph has 13 total tackles, four passes defensed and an interception.
The way Joseph and the rest of that Texans defense is playing, they may be the team to beat in the AFC by the end of the season.
34. Chris Clemons
They say sacks come in bunches, and no one knows that better this season than Seattle Seahawks defensive end Chris Clemons. On Monday Night Football in Week 3's controversial win over the Green Bay Packers, Clemons collected four sacks to give him five on the season so far, good enough for the third-highest total in the NFL this season.
He also has seven total tackles, three passes defensed and a forced fumble to go along with those sacks.
I don't know if he will have another game this season like the one he had against the Packers, but there is no doubt his play is one of the major reasons the Seahawks are off to a 2-1 start so far.
33. Frank Gore
In three games, he has rushed for 264 yards on 45 carries, and he is averaging almost six yards per rush. He also has two rushing touchdowns and has helped the 49ers to a 2-1 start.
Gore is the type of running back that gets stronger as the game goes on. He just keeps pounding away all day until the fourth quarter, and then he finally breaks off a big one.
The 49ers are going to be hard to beat all year if Gore continues performing at this level.
32. Robert Griffin III
Washington Redskins quarterback Robert Griffin III is embodying something totally new to the NFL in my opinion. I don't believe there has ever been a quarterback in NFL history this fast who could also complete a high percentage of his passes.
Griffin hasn't been perfect, of course, but my goodness has he good looked great at times. After three games, he has completed 67.4 percent of his passes for 747 yards with four touchdowns against only one interception.
He has also run the ball 32 times for 209 yards for a sick 6.5 yards per carry and another three touchdowns.
I should note that he has done all this while only having his top receiver, Pierre Garcon, for the first game of the season.
Imagine what life will be like for Griffin when Garcon comes back.
31. Justin Houston
When you talk about pass-rushers for the Kansas City Chiefs, the first name that comes to mind of course is Tamba Hali. This year, however, it's been his fellow outside linebacker, Justin Houston, that has been bringing the heat.
After three games, Houston has 11 total tackles, four sacks and a safety. There haven't been many bright spots for the Chiefs on defense, but Houston has definitely been one to this point.
30. Sean Lee
He is physical against the run and amazingly quick in pass coverage as well. Even though he isn't called upon to blitz all that much, he has shown a knack for excelling at that as well.
The Cowboys defense is stocked with several superstars, but none have shined any brighter than Lee this year.
29. Ben Grubbs
The New Orleans Saints are winless after three games, but their offense is still one of the best in the NFL. That's at least partially due to the fact that after the Saints lost guard Carl Nicks in free agency, they replaced him with former Ravens guard Ben Grubbs.
After three games, Grubbs has Pro Football Focus' highest grade for guards in the NFL. He has been particularly good in pass protection, having not surrendered any sacks and only two quarterback hurries so far this season.
The Saints just need more players to follow his lead.
28. Julius Peppers
Chicago Bears defensive end Julius Peppers is arguably the best at his position in the entire NFL. After three games, he has 2.5 sacks and a fumble recovery to go along with eight total tackles, but statistics rarely tell the whole tale when it comes to the impact Peppers has on a game.
Opposing offenses always have to game-plan for him, and it's a rare occurrence to see him blocked by just one person. By forcing the offense to use running backs as well as tight ends to help the offensive tackles block him, Peppers takes some pressure off his secondary because that's one less eligible receiver out on a route.
Even with all that attention directed at him, he still manages to get constant pressure on the quarterback.
Against the run, even when he isn't making the tackle, Peppers is often the guy forcing the ball-carrier back to his teammates behind the line of scrimmage.
His play along with that of the rest of his teammates on defense has helped the Bears to get off to a 2-1 start, even though their offense has been sputtering. If they ever can get a chance to play with a lead for a few games this season, Peppers is definitely going to push his sack numbers up.
27. Daryl Washington
What a stat sheet won't show you is all the bone-crushing hits Washington dishes out on whomever has the ball when he gets there. That physicality has become the hallmark of the Cardinals defense, and Washington has fit right in.
Washington's play is a major reason why his team has an undefeated record thus far.
26. Duane Brown
Houston Texans left tackle Duane Brown is having an other great season so far. According to Pro Football Focus, he has the third-highest grade of any tackle in the NFL and has yet to surrender a sack.
Brown's blocking is a big reason why the Texans have rolled to a 3-0 start this year. If he continues to play at this level, more people will mention him as one of the elite talents at his position.
25. Charles Woodson
The Green Bay Packers' Charles Woodson hasn't missed a beat in transitioning from cornerback to safety this year. After three games, he has 13 total tackles, 1.5 sacks, two passes defensed, an interception and a forced fumble.
Now that's what you call a stat-sheet stuffer.
Woodson's versatility has been on full display this season, and as he gets more accustomed to playing safety, I expect he will make even more plays on a regular basis. He already appears to be intimidating opposing quarterbacks into dumping the ball off rather than trying to test him deep in coverage.
That can have just as much of an impact on a game as a pass defensed in my book.
24. J. J. Watt
Watt has also tipped five passes, including three in a win over the Miami Dolphins in the season opener. Those are the kind of plays that can lead to turnovers, and the Texans have surely capitalized.
With at least 1.5 sacks in each of the three games to start the season, Watt has shown that it doesn't matter who is put in front of him; he is still going to get after the quarterback.
That is the very definition of a dominant defensive lineman, and he is every bit of that.
23. NaVorro Bowman
When you're the guy playing beside San Francisco 49ers inside linebacker Patrick Willis, it's easy to be somewhat overlooked. So far this season, however, NaVorro Bowman has made it a lot harder for people to ignore him.
After three games, he is leading the NFL in total tackles with 37. He has also logged three passes defensed and an interception to boot.
That 49ers defense is stocked with elite talent, but so far this year Bowman has been the cream of the crop.
22. Marshawn Lynch
He is a guy who I love to watch play because he enjoys initiating contact and at the same time is athletic enough to make people miss.
If he continues to perform this well for the rest of the season, the Seahawks may well find themselves in position to win their division and get into the playoffs.
21. Ray Rice
After three games, he has rushed for 268 yards on just 46 carries for 5.8 yards per carry and three touchdowns on the ground.
Rice is also getting it done in the passing game, having caught 14 passes for 127 yards.
If anything, Rice's production has been hurt by pass-heavy offensive game plans by the Ravens. When he has been given opportunities, he has definitely made the most of them this season, however.
20. Eli Manning
New York Giants quarterback Eli Manning has led his team to a 2-1 record while passing for 1,011 yards, five touchdowns and three interceptions. His yardage numbers are inflated by a huge game in a win against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in Week 2, but there are no asterisks in football.
He has done this while not having the services of several injured Giants starters on offense like wide receiver Hakeem Nicks and running back Ahmad Bradshaw which makes his performance so far even more impressive.
After winning two Super Bowls, there is little doubt anymore that Manning is a great quarterback, and his performance so far this season just reinforces that fact.
19. Thomas DeCoud
I thought before the season started the Atlanta Falcons would have a strong secondary. I never would have guessed that the safeties would be outplaying the cornerbacks, however.
Yet that is indeed the case, and Thomas DeCoud is one of those Falcons safeties that has been making big plays this year. DeCoud already has 15 total tackles, four passes defensed and three interceptions after three games. He is just one interception from equaling his interception numbers from last year, and that was a career high for him in that category.
The Falcons have been one of the most impressive teams in the NFL so far this season, and the play of their secondary has been a major reason why.
If DeCoud and the rest can continue to play at this level, the Falcons may end up being the team to beat in the NFC this year.
18. Arian Foster
Look up "workhorse" in the dictionary and there just might be a picture of Houston Texans running back Arian Foster beside the definition. So far after three games, Foster has already carried the ball 79 times this season, which is 13 more than the next guy on the list.
His 294 rushing yards rank fifth in the NFL, and he also has three touchdowns on the ground. He has also caught eight passes for 36 yards and another touchdown. The only criticism I have is that he is averaging less than four yards per carry at the moment.
I seriously doubt that his per-carry average will stay that low, however. If his work load stays the same but his averages go up, he will have a good chance of winning another rushing crown this year.
17. Will Montgomery
Montgomery has done well both in run- and pass-blocking, and he has given up no sacks and only one quarterback hurry this year.
With so much invested in Redskins rookie quarterback Robert Griffin III, it's vitally important that he has a good offensive line in front of him. Montgomery has definitely done his part to keep Griffin clean and give him a running game to relieve some of the pressure.
16. Nick Mangold
After three game,s Mangold is tied with Washington Redskins center Will Montgomery for Pro Football Focus' highest grades at the position. He has been superb both in pass-blocking as well as run-blocking, and he has only given up one quarterback hit to date.
It's rare that an NFL player is this consistently good, but Mangold tends to make it look easy.
15. A.J. Green
After three games, he has 21 receptions for 311 yards, the second-highest yardage in the NFL. He also has two touchdowns receiving, including one that went for 73 yards.
His strong play has been a major reason why the Bengals are 2-1 so far, and if he keeps it up, they may well make the playoffs again this season.
14. Maurice Jones-Drew
Missing training camp doesn't appear to have hurt Jacksonville Jaguars running back Maurice Jones-Drew one bit. After three games—the first of which he didn't even start—Jones-Drew has rushed for 314 yards and a touchdown on 59 carries.
He has also been active in the passing game, with eight receptions for 41 yards and another touchdown.
The Jaguars may not win many games this year, but if Jones-Drew keeps playing the way he has so far, they will definitely sneak up on some teams.
13. Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie
With their offense sputtering and turning the ball over frequently, the Philadelphia Eagles defense has had to pick up the slack. Cornerback Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie has been one of the defenders whose play has helped keep the Eagles in most of the games so far.
After three games, Rodgers-Cromartie has five total tackles, eight passes defensed and two interceptions. Both of his interceptions came in a season-opening win over the Cleveland Browns that went down to the wire.
Remarkably, Pro Football Focus notes that opposing quarterbacks only have a rating of 6.7 when trying to complete passes to the guy Rodgers-Cromartie is defending. That's one of the lowest such numbers this season.
If the Eagles offense can ever get on track and give the defense an opportunity to play with a lead, I expect his numbers will continue to go up.
12. Joe Flacco
For me, his most impressive statistic this season so far is his 18 completions of 20 yards or more.
Let me acknowledge that I believe the Ravens should be running the ball more with Ray Rice, but it's hard to criticize the game plan too harshly when it has been quite successful thus far.
In fact, as long as Flacco is playing at this high level and the team continues to win games, I don't think you will hear much complaining at all.
11. Patrick Peterson
Earlier this week, Pro Football Focus tweeted that Arizona Cardinals cornerback Patrick Peterson had only given up .38 yards per snap in coverage, which was the lowest number of any cornerback who had been in coverage at least 100 plays.
I have to say, I have never heard of a statistic like that, but it certainly sounds impressive.
What I can tell you for sure is that after watching Peterson it's apparent that he is playing with a lot more confidence and swagger this season, and it is showing up in his play and production.
After three games, Peterson has two passes defensed and an interception to go with six total tackles. Even when he isn't knocking passes down or intercepting them, he is sticking to receivers like glue and forcing incomplete passes.
Of course, Peterson does more than just play cornerback. He is also the Cardinals' punt-return specialist and is averaging 9.2 yards per return so far. He hasn't broken a big one yet this season, but he has definitely been close.
The Cardinals are also using Peterson as a "Wildcat" quarterback on offense, trying to maximize his effect on the outcome of games, which I think is pretty smart on their part.
As the season goes on, I expect Peterson to continue to grow into an elite-level NFL cornerback.
10. Marshal Yanda
Yanda has been particularly dominant as a run-blocker, posting the highest grade in that category.
If only someone could convince his offensive coordinator to run the ball more, the Ravens offense would likely be even more productive.
9. Ben Roethlisberger
After a somewhat slow start in a season-opening loss to the Denver Broncos, Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger has been on fire. I don't know if he is just getting more comfortable in new offensive coordinator Todd Haley's offense or what, but he has certainly been highly productive.
For the season, Roethlisberger has passed for 904 yards with eight touchdowns against only one interception.
Did I mention he is also completing just over 68 percent of his passes?
I'm still not used to seeing the Steelers throw quite this much, but if Big Ben is going to play like this, I could get used to it.
8. C.J. Spiller
Buffalo Bills running back C.J. Spiller started the season off with a bang filling in for injured starter Fred Jackson. In three games, he has rushed for 308 yards on just 33 carries for a gaudy 9.3 yards per carry.
If Spiller can stay healthy, there is no question he will be one of the top running backs in the NFL this season.
7. Ryan Clady
According to Pro Football Focus, Clady has their highest pass-blocking grade for a tackle this year. He hasn't given up a sack so far and has only allowed one quarterback hit in pass protection.
If Clady can continue to keep Manning clean, I imagine the Broncos will be contending for a playoff spot by the end of this season.
6. Jamaal Charles
After three games, Charles has rushed for 323 yards, good enough to lead the NFL in that category. Mind you, in the second game of the season, a loss to the Buffalo Bills, Charles managed only three yards on six carries. If he had even an average game against the Bills, he would be running away with the rushing title at this point.
The question for Charles is whether he can be consistent in his production every game. When he runs the way he did against the Saints, the Chiefs are hard to beat. When he plays the way he did in Buffalo, however, it's almost impossible for the Chiefs to get a win.
5. Calvin Johnson
There may have never been a more uniquely talented football player than Detroit Lions wide receiver Calvin Johnson in the history of the NFL. He is so routinely physically dominant that we are surprised when he doesn't put up amazing numbers every game.
After three games, he is once again atop the NFL in receiving yards, with 369. That's 58 yards more than the guy in second place. He has gained those yards on 24 receptions and is averaging 15.4 yards a catch. The only thing that has been missing so far are touchdowns, of which he has "only" one.
Teams are throwing the kitchen sink at Johnson to try to stop him, and he still continues to make big plays. For me, that's the true sign of greatness.
4. Tim Jennings
Chicago Bears cornerback Tim Jennings leads the NFL with four interceptions after three games. Even when he isn't picking the ball off, Jennings is making life miserable for the quarterbacks he plays against. They only have only a quarterback rating when trying to complete a pass to the wide receivers he defends.
Jennings is also a willing run defender, which you have to be to play in the Bears' Cover 2 scheme. He has notched 11 total tackles to go along with nine passes defensed.
If Jennings continues to play at his current high level, his numbers at the end of the season will be unreal.
3. Percy Harvin
Minnesota Vikings wide receiver Percy Harvin leads the NFL after three games with 27 receptions. I'm not sure it's even fair to label him as just a wide receiver, however, considering that all he does for that team.
He has gained 277 yards on those 27 catches and has an additional 42 yards on the ground off of eight carries. He is also averaging 30 yards every time he takes one out of the end zone on kickoff returns.
The Vikings have gotten off to a surprising 2-1 start this season, and Harvin's play is a major reason why.
2. Matt Ryan
Atlanta Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan is just tearing it up so far this season. He is leading the NFL in quarterback rating, and the next-closest guy is five points away. When you look at the rest of his numbers, it's easy to see why.
First of all, he is also leading the NFL in completion percentage at 72 percent, which I must say is ridiculous. He also has already thrown eight touchdown passes to only one interception.
Oh, and he has run the ball 10 times for 48 yards on the ground and another touchdown.
If there's a quarterback in the NFL playing better than Matt Ryan, I can promise you I haven't seen him.
1. Clay Matthews
Green Bay Packers linebacker Clay Matthews has been acting like a bully so far this season, going around taking left tackles' lunch money. So far, he already has six sacks after just three games, and if he wasn't getting held on almost every other play, he would have even more. His pass-rush technique has been exceptional and impressive to watch.
Even when he isn't coming home with his sacks, he is applying constant pressure on opposing quarterbacks. The attention teams are paying to Matthews to try to block him is also helping his teammates in the front seven get one-on-one opportunities.
When called upon, he is also decent in pass coverage, with one pass defensed so far this season.
When it comes down to it, I just don't think there is a defensive player in the NFL having more of an impact on their team's games right now.
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