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The NFL's Top 50 Players at the Season's Quarter Mark

Matt MillerNFL Draft Lead WriterDecember 7, 2016

The NFL's Top 50 Players at the Season's Quarter Mark

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    As part of our extensive Bleacher Report NFL 1,000 series, we've begun breaking down the top players, so far, in the 2012 season. Who has stood out most?

    The Top 50 players may sound like a lot, but when you try to narrow down 1,696 active players to 50 standouts, inevitably, many star players and top contributors will be left out. Feelings will be hurt, and we'd like to apologize to every NFL player who currently outweighs us or could catch us on the run.

    Based on 2012 only—not previous success and not future potential—here are the Top 50 players from the first quarter of the season.

50. Earl Thomas, FS, Seattle Seahawks

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    The Word: Author's Take

    Earl Thomas isn't the biggest free safety. He's not the strongest free safety. He's not the fastest free safety. Thomas isn't a lot of things, but he is exceptional.

    Few players in the NFL can play with the range that Thomas shows on a consistent basis. He has a rare ability to locate the ball and take smart, efficient angles to get to the ball in flight and the ball on the ground.

    Thomas' range makes him a standout player, and it's allowing him to be a major impact for one of the NFL's best defenses.

49. Matt Schaub, QB, Houston Texans

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    The Word: Pro Football Writers of America's Alex Dunlap

    Having attended numerous Texans training camps, games and events during Schaub's six-year tenure in Houston, I can tell you Schaub is more than that. He is to the Texans offense what Connor Barwin is to the Texans defense.

48. Percy Harvin, WR, Minnesota Vikings

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    The Word: Minnesota Vikings Offensive Guard, Geoff Schwartz

    One of the most versatile athletes I've ever seen. Doesn't matter what position he's playing, every time he touches the ball, he's got a chance to score.


    The Word: Author's Take

    Harvin has evolved into an all-around NFL threat, something we only saw glimpses of before the 2012 season. This year, Harvin is taking the game by storm. As a wide receiver and kick returner, Harvin has become the threat the Vikings needed to open up the offense around Christian Ponder.

47. Mike Iupati, OG, San Francisco 49ers

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    The Word: San Francisco 49ers Featured Columnist, Jesse Reed

    Iupati is a rare player with elite size, athleticism, power and explosion. 

    At 6'5" and 331 pounds, he is one of the most devastating run-blockers in the NFL. Iupati is especially effective when pulling to the right, and the San Francisco 49ers often call power-running plays that feature him doing just that. 

    Iupati has the ability to make other big men look weak by comparison with his raw power. He explodes off the line at the snap and drives defensive tackles off the block with regularity, and his exemplary play is a big reason the 49ers have been so successful the past two years in their ground attack.

46. Gerald McCoy, DT, Tampa Bay Buccaneers

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    The Word: NFC South Lead Blogger, Knox Bardeen

    Gerald McCoy is finally living up to his draft status. The former third overall pick in the 2010 draft has three sacks through four games and leads all NFC South defensive tackles with three quarterback hits and 11 hurries through the first quarter of the season.

    McCoy’s never been short on talent or upside; his issues have been injury-related. Both of his first two seasons were ended prematurely by an injury, but that’s not an excuse you'll ever hear from McCoy.

    His explosive ability to disrupt the passer speaks volumes, and that speaks highly to the new system he plays in. McCoy is being asked to get after the quarterback more and be less of a lane-clogging tackle. The new role definitely fits.

45. Alterraun Verner, CB, Tennessee Titans

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    The Word: Author's Take

    When the Tennessee Titans lost Cortland Finnegan to free agency, many wondered who would step up and become the elite cornerback for this team. Alterraun Verner has taken that job and improved upon it.

    Verner has been on lockdown in coverage this year, keeping opposing quarterbacks in check with tight coverage in the Titans scheme. Verner has improved greatly in the spotlight this season, allowing a passer rating of only 64.4.

44. Chris Long, DE, St. Louis Rams

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    The Word: Former NFL Defensive Lineman Stephen White

    What makes Chris Long so good is a combination of technique as well as the fact that he is deceptively, uncommonly, strong. Long is not the biggest defensive end you will see, but with great hand placement and strength, he can bull rush just about any offensive tackle in the NFL.

    He doesn't just get push, however, he also knows the right moment to escape off the block before the OT can sit down and recover.

43. Thomas DeCoud, SS, Atlanta Falcons

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    The Word: NFC South Lead Blogger, Knox Bardeen

    Want to know who benefited the most from the arrival of new defensive coordinator Mike Nolan? It may have been Thomas DeCoud, who has always been known as a heady player but has never been given the opportunity to use that intelligence to make big plays.

    Nolan’s new system is designed to let the safeties set the defense quickly and then play mind games with the opposing quarterback. DeCoud might line up in his normal spot with the defensive backs, or he might roam up with the linebackers or defensive line.

    He’s been given free reign to make pre-snap adjustments and even change Nolan’s plays at times. Decoud’s intelligence is shining with the newfound aggressiveness of this scheme, and his game is taking off.

42. Trent Williams, OT, Washington Redskins

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    The Word: Author's Take

    When you think of the elite left tackles in the NFL, you probably go to Joe Thomas or Jake Long—maybe last year or the year before that even. This year, Trent Williams is establishing himself as an elite blindside protector.

    Williams has allowed just one sack in four starts—and that's protecting a running rookie quarterback who's struggled with his pocket presence. Williams has been stellar for the Redskins' all-around game, showing the quickness and length to dominate in the run and pass game.

41. Darnell Dockett, DE, Arizona Cardinals

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    The Word: NFL Lead Writer, Michael Schottey

    While I would never encourage anyone following Dockett on Twitter, watching him play is always revelatory. He has a nose for the ball and always seems to have the right counter-punch for anything opposing linemen throw at him. He's one of the more well-rounded defensive linemen in all of football. 

40. LeSean McCoy, RB, Philadelphia Eagles

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    The Word: Author's Take

    LeSean McCoy is arguably the most talented running back in the NFL, but as far as production goes, he's being held back by his head coach.

    If we were ranking on raw talent, McCoy would be higher than No. 40 overall and would likely top the running back list. Instead, thanks to Andy Reid, he's down here near the bottom. McCoy has talent, but until the Eagles start to use him properly, we can't argue for him to be ranked higher as a producer and on impact.

39. Mike Pouncey, OC, Miami Dolphins

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    The Word: NFL Lead Writer, Michael Schottey

38. Rob Gronkowski, TE, New England Patriots

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    The Word: Author's Take

    There is no doubting that Rob Gronkowski is the most talented, gifted tight end in football. That impact led to a record-setting 2011 season, but so far in 2012, we're waiting.

    Gronkowski has been very good. Let's not take that away from him, but he's not been the monster he was last season. That could come down the stretch. It is only Week 5 afterall, but the key will be Gronkowski's ball security. His three drops are an issue, but his three touchdowns are a nice counter-argument, too.

    We love Gronk, and when this list comes out in 12 weeks, we're betting he's ranked higher.

37. Johnathan Joseph, CB, Houston Texans

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    The Word: AFC South Lead Blogger, Nate Dunlevy

    Johnathan Joseph transforms the Texans defense and allows it to run the exotic blitzes that turn virtually every linebacker on the team into a sack threat. He isn't quite the lockdown player Revis is, but Wade Phillips uses him perfectly.

    He's nearly impossible to throw short and possesses elite ball and recovery skills. He's the linchpin of one of the most feared defenses in the NFL.

36. Justin Smith, DE, San Francisco 49ers

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    The Word: San Francisco 49ers Featured Columnist, Jesse Reed

    The San Francisco 49ers have the NFL's best front seven, and Justin Smith is the cornerstone upon which this unit is built. 

    At 6'4" and 285 pounds, Smith isn't a particularly big man by NFL standards, but he's a bull of a man who can drive most offensive tackles back into their own quarterback with frightening regularity.

    Beyond his physical abilities, which are impressive in their own right, Smith plays with supreme discipline and a relentless motor. He's at his best at the end of games, when offensive linemen are worn down. While they fade, Smith gets stronger.


    The Word: Kansas City Chiefs Right Tackle, Eric Winston

    What does Smith do best? Everything. Very few 5-technique defensive ends can do it all. Smith can do it all and then some. 

35. Maurice Jones-Drew, RB, Jacksonville Jaguars

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    The Word: AFC South Lead Blogger, Nate Dunlevy

    MJD IS the Jaguars offense. Despite being cursed with one of the league's most decrepit passing games, Jones-Drew overcomes stacked boxes every week to put up huge totals.

    He's not as fast as he used to be, but his low center of gravity and tremendous strength allows him to grind through tackles, turning two-yard gains into six-yard gains. He can catch, return kicks and block. He is as complete a back as there is in the NFL and is right in his prime.

34. Von Miller, OLB, Denver Broncos

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    The Word: Former NFL Defensive Lineman Stephen White

    What makes Von Miller so good is his explosiveness in his first two steps. Whether he is pass rushing, dropping in coverage or playing the run, when Miller sees a play to be made he can get there with the best of them because of his first two steps.

    This gives offensive tackles fits, as they must to bail out of their stances to try to catch up to him when he goes around the corner. After he does that enough times, then he catches them under the chin and easily pushes them back because they are trying so hard to account for his speed.

33. Eric Weddle, FS, San Diego Chargers

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    The Word: Author's Take

    When the B/R NFL 1,000 was published after the 2011 season, Eric Weddle came out as the top free safety in football. That hasn't changed.

    Weddle impacts the game as a coverage safety and as a run defender in the box. He's able to play center field for the Chargers defense with his speed and vision, taking clean angles to the ball once he makes a read on the play.

    Weddle's allowed passer rating right now? 37.1

32. Patrick Peterson, CB, Arizona Cardinals

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    The Word: Author's Take

    Kick returner. Cornerback. Freak of nature.

    Peterson carried the label of "overrated" in 2011, but he's been a different player this year. Now that he's more comfortable in the Cardinals scheme, Peterson has emerged as a top cover corner. Throw in his insane ability with the ball in his hands and you have one of the NFL's most dangerous players.

    You might not think of Peterson on an elite level in terms of coverage ability, but he is. And he's here to stay.

31. Robert Griffin III, QB, Washington Redskins

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    The Word: Author's Take

    When looking at production and impact through the first four weeks, rookie quarterback Robert Griffin III has to be mentioned.

    Griffin entered the league with considerable hype, but he's lived up to that hype—and then some. The first-year passer is currently the No. 4 highest-rated passer in the NFL. And that doesn't take into account what he's done on the ground.

    Get used to seeing Griffin mentioned among the best players in the game. He's going to be here for a long time.

30. Adrian Peterson, RB, Minnesota Vikings

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    The Word: Minnesota Vikings Offensive Guard, Geoff Schwartz

    Best word to describe Peterson is explosive. He does an outstanding job finding the crease in the defense and hitting it with explosion. Once he breaks out to the second level, good luck tackling him. 


    The Word: Author's Take

    Adrian Peterson is the model for which we hold all running back prospects up against. His size, speed and strength are what you'd get if you were asked to sketch the ideal RB. Peterson's raw ability doesn't even completely show up on TV. To see him in person is a reality check.

29. DeMarcus Ware, OLB, Dallas Cowboys

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    The Word: Dallas Cowboys Featured Columnist, Alex Hall

    The Dallas Cowboys, as a team, have been up and down over DeMarcus Ware’s seven seasons in the NFL, but he himself has been the definition of consistency.

    The Troy alum is a six-time Pro Bowl selection for a reason, as he has flirted with Michael Strahan’s single-season sack record twice in his career.

    Ware is arguably the most disruptive defensive player in all of pro football, and every team that plays against Dallas knows it. If I was building a defense from scratch, the first player I’d get on that unit would be Ware.

28. Tim Jennings, CB, Chicago Bears

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    The Word: Pro Football Focus Expert, Sam Monson

    Jennings has always been a tough, physical corner who was tricky to beat underneath and would limit damage in coverage. But this year, he's making fantastic plays when the ball is in the air, looking more like a Cromartie than a tough, Tampa 2 corner.

    He's added a series of fantastic displays of ball skill to the rest of his game and has been fantastic over the first quarter.

27. Ryan Kerrigan, OLB, Washington Redskins

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    The Word: Author's Take

    Four sacks. Five quarterback hits. Fifteen quarterback hurries. Ryan Kerrigan has been getting work done.

    With the loss of Brian Orakpo to injury this season, Kerrigan has been putting in overtime as the team's leading pass-rusher. Kerrigan has been so good that our friends at Pro Football Focus currently rank him the most productive 3-4 outside linebacker in the game.

    This coming from the guys who watch every snap of every game. 

26. Calais Campbell, DE, Arizona Cardinals

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    The Word: Author's Take

    The 4-0 start by the Arizona Cardinals isn't an accident. It's not a fluke. It's a hard-hitting defense putting a team on their backs.

    The credit is shared by everyone on the defense, but Calais Campbell has been as integral a part of the team's dominant defensive play as any. Campbell is multi-talented in the hybrid defense. He's able to line up anywhere from a wide defensive end down to an interior tackle—and no matter where he's lined up, Campbell has been producing. 

25. Vernon Davis, TE, San Francisco 49ers

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    The Word: Author's Take

    The best tight end in football—at least through four weeks.

    Vernon Davis may be seen by some as "just" a pass-catcher. He's not. One of the great things Mike Singletary did during his tenure in San Francisco was to toughen Davis up. In doing so, he turned him into one of the best blocking tight ends in the game. 

    Davis is able to block from an in-line spot at the end of the offensive line or as a move blocker coming in motion. When he's not flat-backing defenders, Davis just so happens to be a deadly weapon in the passing game, thanks to his unbelievable speed and open-field acceleration.

24. Arian Foster, RB, Houston Texans

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    The Word: AFC South Lead Blogger, Nate Dunlevy

    Arian Foster is so good that when he picks up 380 yards and four scores in four games, the media wonders what's wrong with him. Because of the run-heavy looks the Texans execute, even when passing, Foster is keyed in on every snap.

    He runs with good power, vision and speed and has over 600 yards receiving each of the last two years.

23. Haloti Ngata, DT, Baltimore Ravens

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    The Word: NFL Lead Writer, Michael Schottey

    After seeing Ngata up close, it's almost impossible to describe how large this man is. Television does not do him justice.

    He truly exemplifies the maxim that there are only a certain number of people on earth that big and that athletic. When one sees him move, it's almost embarrassing how lithe and agile he is for his size. 

22. Jason Pierre-Paul, DE, New York Giants

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    The Word: Former NFL Defensive Tackle, Seth Payne

    It's rare for a defensive lineman with rare physical skills like JPP to also have the drive and motor that he does. Often, those guys have had it kind of easy because they so easily dominate at the lower levels. By the time they get to the NFL, they haven't developed the drive that it takes to truly dominate. This is not so with JPP. 

    He gets great separation with those long arms of his and uses his strength in the run game.  The scary thing is that he has just scratched the surface of how good he could become. As his play recognition continues to improve, he'll become even more of a force.


    The Word: Author's Take

    You won't find many defensive players with as much raw talent and athletic ability as Jason Pierre-Paul. You also won't find many who produce like he does.

    When talking about production and impact, few can compare. Through four games this season, JPP has 13 quarterback hurries and two sacks—while being double-teamed or chipped on most passing downs. The Giants end is receiving extra attention from opposing offenses, and for good reason.

    While his sack numbers haven't been great yet, Pierre-Paul is making up for it with improved ability against the run. As odd as it may seem to those who saw him last season, JPP has been better against the run this year than he has been in pass-rushing situations.

21. Aaron Rodgers, QB, Green Bay Packers

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    The Word: Author's Take

    The reigning NFL Most Valuable Player hasn't had a great start to the season. Rodgers' status has taken a hit since we last ranked him as the best player in the game, but he's still one of the best at what he does.

    Based on the first four games, he's performing at a high level but not the same elite level he was last year. Rodgers is the best quarterback in football (arguably), but his production this year can't match up to the play of Matt Ryan, Tom Brady and others.

    Most talented quarterback? Definitely Aaron Rodgers. Best this year? Nope.

20. Ray Rice, RB, Baltimore Ravens

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    The Word: AFC North Lead Blogger, Andrea Hangst

    Ray Rice is easily the best, most versatile back in the league, though he does seem to get more than his fair share of passes thrown his way than traditional handoffs. He's basically served as the poster boy for the Ravens offense for the previous four seasons and has already earned every penny of his new $40 million deal.

    There's no team in the NFL who couldn't use Rice or a player like him—unfortunately for 31 teams, there's only one Rice, and the Ravens have him.

19. Marshal Yanda, OG, Baltimore Ravens

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    The Word: AFC North Lead Blogger, Andrea Hangst

    The Ravens' identity, for years now, has been its defense, so their offensive players have mostly fallen by the wayside when anyone talks of their best players. However, guard Marshal Yanda has quietly been one of the very best at his position over the past few years.

    His run-blocking is almost unparalleled, which is a boon for running back Ray Rice. And now, he's the most successful veteran on the Ravens offensive line, providing much-needed leadership and making everyone around him better.

18. A.J. Green, WR, Cincinnati Bengals

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    The Word: AFC North Lead Blogger, Andrea Hangst

    The common consensus is that a good quarterback makes a mediocre receiver better, but A.J. Green is the type of wideout to make any quarterback look like a star.

    That's not to say that Andy Dalton is mediocre, but it was Green's presence on the field last year that helped him have a successful rookie season. And now that the two have a year working together behind them, Dalton's one of the more accurate quarterbacks in the league.

    The NFL is all about looking for the "next"—the next Joe Montana, the next Tom Brady, the next Jerry Rice. Green is quickly becoming a category of his own, and teams will be searching for the "next" of him in no time.

17. Cameron Wake, DE, Miami Dolphins

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    The Word: Former NFL Defensive Lineman Stephen White

    What makes Cameron Wake so good is his technique with his hands. Wake is one of the most efficient pass-rushers in the NFL because he doesn't waste any movement.

    He does a great job anticipating the punch from the offensive lineman and consistently finds ways to keep them from getting their hands on him. He is a great athlete, without a doubt, but it's his technique that puts him over the top.

16. Eli Manning, QB, New York Giants

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    The Word: Author's Take

    Some may think it's a cardinal sin to rank Eli Manning above Aaron Rodgers, but remember, this is based on 2012 (through four weeks) only. Given the two quarterbacks' performances, Manning has been the better of the two.

    Eli has been calm, composed and efficient this year. The Giants may be 2-2, but that falls more on the play of the defense than anything. Manning has been wonderful, playing some of the best regular-season football we've seen from No. 10.

    With the No. 2 highest passing yards total (1,320) and seven touchdown passes, Manning is on pace for another stellar season.

15. Calvin Johnson, WR, Detroit Lions

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    The Word: NFL Lead Writer, Michael Schottey

    Easily the most physically dominant offensive player, Johnson still goes through long stretches where Matt Stafford seems unable to get him the ball. Some of that is on Stafford and the play-calling, but Johnson can periodically get lazy in his route running against more physical corners and complex coverage.

    This is, truly, a nitpick, however, for the best receiver playing the game.

14. C.J. Spiller, RB, Buffalo Bills

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    The Word: Author's Take

    Yes, you read that right. C.J. Spiller is the best running back in the NFL right now. Well, at least he's the most productive and impactful.

    With an average yards per carry of 8.3, Spiller is literally running away from the rest of the league. Be it as a runner or a receiver, few people are stopping the third-year running back before he's nearly to a first down. 

    We've known that Spiller is extremely talented, and in 2011, he showed that with Fred Jackson injured, he could carry the load. But what we're seeing now is that Spiller is ready for much more action. Jackson should be worried—so should NFL defenses.

13. Ryan Clady, OT, Denver Broncos

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    The Word: Author's Take

    Zero sacks and just one quarterback hit allowed. That's how you play the left tackle position to perfection.

    We had written off Ryan Clady after he struggled in 2010 and 2011, but he's back this year and looking better than ever. Maybe it's the quick release of Peyton Manning at quarterback, but Clady looks quicker, stronger and more fluid than in years past. It could be that he's finally healthy after numerous nagging injuries.

    Whatever it is, Clady has been dominant for the Denver Broncos.

12. Ben Roethlisberger, QB, Pittsburgh Steelers

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    The Word: NFL Lead Writer, Michael Schottey

    Big Ben has been an enigma as long as he's been in the NFL. Decision-making has never been his strong suit—on or off the field—but even as rookie mistakes turned into expectation, he's wowed with his ability to win games and lead the Steelers to the mountaintop again and again.

    Physically, he doesn't get enough credit for being the paradigm many think of when they think, "NFL quarterback."

11. NaVorro Bowman, ILB, San Francisco 49ers

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    The Word: Author's Take

    Playing in the shadow of Patrick Willis can't be easy, but NaVorro Bowman has started to outgrow that shadow. 

    It started last season, when Bowman's speed and all-around agility started to outrun Willis to the ball. Or, when he'd show a fluid drop into pass coverage and break up a ball intended for a tight end who was supposed to be bigger and faster.

    Bowman's stock rose exponentially during the 2011 season, but so far in 2012, we're seeing him live up to those expectations—and then some.

10. Adrian Wilson, SS, Arizona Cardinals

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    The Word: Author's Take

    I'll admit it: Adrian Wilson has long been a favorite player of mine. Ever since the Clancy Pendergast days in Arizona, Wilson's ability to stuff the run and drop back into coverage has enamored me. Now, Wilson is starting to show the rest of the country just how great he is.

    Wilson is doing things, so far, in 2012 that shouldn't happen. He's allowing a passer rating of 0.7, allowing just one pass completed when thrown to his man. That's an unheard of "burn rate." Wilson isn't all coverage, though. When a runner breaks through the line of scrimmage and shakes a linebacker, Wilson is the one there to clean up the mess. 

    You won't find a better safety in the NFL's first four weeks than Adrian Wilson.

9. Roddy White, WR, Atlanta Falcons

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    The Word: NFC South Lead Blogger, Knox Bardeen

    For those who thought Roddy White didn’t have an explosive step any longer, look back at the Carolina game from Week 4 and look at the two deep balls of 49 yards and 59 yards that he caught.

    White isn’t going to be tearing the top off defenses with regularity—that’s what the Falcons have Julio Jones for—but he still has the skill set to do so on occasion.

    White is the receiver Matt Ryan looks for when he needs to move the chains. Jones may be the new deep threat and preferred red-zone target, but White is still the guy who will catch more passes than anyone on this team. 

8. Lardarius Webb, CB, Baltimore Ravens

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    The Word: AFC North Lead Blogger, Andrea Hangst

    The Ravens secondary has issues this year, but none of them belong to cornerback Lardarius Webb—he of the $50 million contract extension.

    Since taking over as starter last year, he's been a force to contend with, giving up no touchdowns and pulling down five interceptions. He effectively cuts off whole swaths of the field to opposing quarterbacks and makes the Ravens defense more than just Ed Reed and a pass rush.

    Baltimore's a well-balanced defense, thanks to Webb's contributions.

7. Tom Brady, QB, New England Patriots

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    The Word: ESPN Boston Columnist, Field Yates

    Patriots head coach Bill Belichick often references the importance of decision-making and accuracy when discussing quarterback play, and count those amongst the strengths of Tom Brady.

    Brady can consistently dissect a defense before the snap, has the patience and poise to process his progression, and rarely misses an open window to throw to. Though not an elite athlete (he's better described as a below-average one), Brady has tremendous feel and within-pocket mobility, with subtle footwork and movements.

    On top of all of his physical talents, Brady sets the bar for preparation and work ethic amongst Patriots players, as he treats every day as an opportunity to improve.

6. Geno Atkins, DT, Cincinnati Bengals

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    The Word: AFC North Lead Blogger, Andrea Hangst

    Cincinnati Bengals defensive linemen are generally an underrated crew, thanks to the team's rotational approach that allows no one player to take 100 percent of the snaps. Stars can still emerge from this system, however, like defensive tackle Geno Atkins, a man who can do it all.

    Primarily a pass-rusher, Atkins has five sacks already this year, eight last year and five as a rookie in 2010. But, he's also a strong tackler, which makes him a major force in the Bengals pass defense.

    If he played more snaps, he'd be a household name already, but he absolutely deserves more love based on what he makes out of every snap he gets.

5. Patrick Willis, ILB, San Francisco 49ers

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    The Word: Author's Take

    Mike Singletary. Ray Lewis. Patrick Willis.

    When you think of the all-time great inside linebackers, it won't be long before Willis' name gets serious mention. What he does on a weekly basis has become so expected, so normal, that we start overlooking a linebacker who makes 90 percent of the tackles he attempts.

    We've become accustomed to a middle linebacker reading the pull of the guard and ripping through blocks to stuff the run for a loss. 

    Basically, we've started to take greatness for granted. Patrick Willis is greatness. And we're damn lucky to see it.

4. Duane Brown, OT, Houston Texans

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    The Word: AFC South Lead Blogger, Nate Dunlevy

    Duane Brown went the entire 2011 season without giving up a sack, and now, he's locked up long term for the Texans at a reasonable price. Houston is dominant running around the left end as well. He's everything you can ask for in a franchise tackle.


    The Word: Author's Take

    Duane Brown hasn't allowed a sack in 20 straight regular-season games—not once. If there is any stat we can share with you to explain just how great Brown is, that's it. Despite facing constant pressure from right defensive ends and despite having a rookie quarterback behind him for the latter part of the 2011 season, Brown was flawless.

    When we talk about the NFL's best left tackle, it's no longer Jake Long and Joe Thomas. It's Duane Brown.

3. Matt Ryan, QB, Atlanta Falcons

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    The Word: NFC South Lead Blogger, Knox Bardeen

    Matt Ryan has improved in each of his five seasons in the NFL, but the jump he’s made this season has been nothing short of gargantuan. Ryan said that new offensive coordinator Dirk Koetter only changed about 15 percent of Atlanta’s playbook upon arrival, but that 15 percent change has really sparked Ryan’s efficiency.

    His completion percentage is almost eight percentage points higher this year than his career average, and he’s on pace to crush personal and franchise records in yardage (4,648) and touchdown passes (44).

2. Clay Matthews, OLB, Green Bay Packers

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    The Word: Former NFL Defensive Tackle, Seth Payne

    Matthews has a great speed rush, but the things that impress me most are his strength, balance and play recognition. Aside from having the ability to bull rush much larger offensive tackles, he has the strength and balance to stay active when he comes inside on stunts and has to split double-teams by guards and centers. 

    It's also obvious that he studies a lot of film because he anticipates blocking schemes very quickly and takes excellent angles to the ball. Part of that is instinct, but any player who does it consistently in the NFL puts some serious time in the film room or at the iPad or whatever the devil these kids watch film on these days.

1. J.J. Watt, DE, Houston Texans

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    The Word: AFC South Lead Blogger, Nate Dunlevy

    J.J. Watt is the most dominant defensive player in the game today. He's virtually unblockable by a single guard, and even if he does get stopped, his long arms and ability to bat down passes means he doesn't have to get close to do damage. To top it all off, he's outstanding in the run game as well. There's nothing he can't do.


    The Word: Author's Take

    With 7.5 sacks in four games, J.J. Watt is on a pace to break the NFL sack record. He's doing that playing left defensive end in a 3-4 scheme. Those things don't happen.

    Today's NFL is about speed off the edge, but Watt is combining speed and power from a position that is generally asked to anchor the edge and stop the run. His versatility—he can slide inside and play tackle on third downs—allows Wade Phillips to build a scheme that takes full advantage of Watt's unique skill set.

    A defensive end as the best player in the NFL? You'd better believe it.

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