Numbers help define the game of football.
It goes beyond the basic numbers that describe the game—the down, the distance, the box score. It goes beyond just statistics like "1,000-yard rusher" or "100-catch receiver." It goes beyond phrases like "three yards and a cloud of dust" or "it's a game of inches."
Yes, even jersey numbers help define a game as images of notable and favorite players get burned into our consciousness. For a game that covers the faces of its athletes, the numbers on the jersey become how we identify the players we care about.
It's a league where Chad Johnson literally changed his name to "Ochocinco" in a failed attempt to translate his number—85—into Spanish. It's a league where "16 throws to 80" conjures up instant memories of Joe Montana throwing a strike across the middle to Jerry Rice for the 49ers. It's a league where veterans and rookies haggle over jersey numbers and barter them like expensive wares.
Years from now, many of the players we know and love will come back to the stadiums where they spent their careers and be immortalized by having their jersey and number hung from a rafter and retired from use. That number will stand as a monument for all to see—and represent all of the joy and success that athlete brought to his city.
With that in mind, here is the best player wearing each jersey number in the NFL today.
Newton gets so much criticism, it's difficult to remember that he's only 24.
In his young career, Newton has established himself as one of the elite athletes at the quarterback position and is trying to put the finer points on his game with little to no help (at times) from his Carolina Panther teammates. Still, he's already been to one Pro Bowl and is just a year removed from Rookie of the Year honors.
Because he is such a phenomenal natural athlete, the public always wants more out of this "entertainer and icon," but Newton should have no problem continuing to improve and solidifying his position as the best No. 1 in all of football.
Ryan's career has been, to some extent, a bit enigmatic. While Ryan has always displayed great ability and showcased a fantastic command of the game, the success hasn't always been there. It was, certainly, in 2008 when Ryan held off Baltimore Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco for Rookie of the Year honors. It returned in 2012 when Ryan led the Falcons to within a possession of the Super Bowl.
In the middle of those two points, Ryan has had to deal with a lot of critics, doubters and upheaval around him in terms of both teammates and schemes.
Atlanta fans might quibble and say that he's already accomplished everything it takes to get to elite status, but maybe he should try to duplicate or even improve upon last year's successes just in case.
If one spends any significant time on Twitter during a Seahawks contest, it's likely that they would eventually see the phrase "ALL RUSSELL WILSON EVERYTHING"—a common testament by his fans to both Wilson's greatness and his electric style of play.
Each time he shows off his athleticism and savvy on the football field, the quarterback manages to gain a few more of those fans.
Yes, Wilson has only spent one year in the league, but as a true dual-threat both running and throwing the ball, combined with leadership and an uncanny knowledge of the game, Wilson should have this spot locked down for some time to come.
Well, yes, a punter, especially because Lee isn't just any old punter. Lee is one of the best punters the league has ever seen. He set an NFL record with 43.99 net yards averaged per punt attempt in 2011 and is a four-time All-Pro.
As punters go, Lee has helped set the gold standard and is one of the rare examples of a kicking specialist who might one day claim to be one of his franchise's best players—even on a team as successful and storied as the 49ers.
At only 30 years old, Lee can continue his assault on the NFL record books and cement his status in both 49ers and NFL lore.
For 53 days this offseason, Flacco was the highest-paid player in the NFL. It was a unique honor that few thought Flacco could ever lay claim to—something Flacco can be proud of, even if Green Bay Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers ensured his title was short-lived.
The reigning Super Bowl MVP has the NFL's strongest arm and is finally learning how to use it to lead his team to more than just regular-season victories. While, yes, the Ravens had some free-agent exodus issues this offseason, Flacco shouldn't have any problem getting his team back to the playoffs in 2013 and beyond.
Like Flacco, Cutler has the one physical attribute one can't teach quarterbacks—a cannon arm. With Marc Trestman in the fold as head coach of the Bears, Cutler couldn't ask for a better tutor to help him refine the rest of his game.
In 2013, Cutler should have more help around him as well with the additions of offensive tackle Jermon Bushrod, tight end Martellus Bennett and offensive lineman rookie Kyle Long.
Cutler takes a lot of flack for his attitude at times, but his natural talent can't be dismissed. With more help and an offensive scheme that will play to his strengths, Cutler should have a legitimate chance to get the Bears back into playoff contention in the NFC North.
In many ways, Roethlisberger (now 31) was one of the harbingers of the new class of quarterbacks in the NFL—the kind of quarterback for whom all training is on the job. Thrown directly into the fire out of Miami of Ohio, Roethlisberger wasn't just a Rookie of the Year in his first season, he was able to take his team to the AFC Championship Game.
In Year 2, Big Ben became the youngest starting quarterback to ever win a Super Bowl.
There aren't many quarterbacks better at extending the play than Roethlisberger. He's not the most fleet of foot, but he feels pressure with a sixth sense and throws well enough on the run to take advantage of any breakdowns in the defense.
Schaub didn't deserve to be a Pro Bowl player in 2012. There, I said it. Glad it's off my chest, and we can get on to other more complimentary matters. Though, I'm sure every Houston fan will focus on that statement rather than the fact I have him as the best No. 8 in the entire NFL.
After backing up Michael Vick in Atlanta, Schaub has shined as the leader of the Texans offense. It hasn't all been roses, and he's leaned heavily on the zone rushing attack, but Schaub has been able to take what defenses give him and get the ball to one of the game's best receivers—Andre Johnson.
Brees is the true volume passer of our era. Not since San Diego Chargers legend Dan Fouts has any quarterback been able to handle the sheer mass of passes that Sean Payton's offense calls for. In that system, Brees has made superstars out of pedestrian receivers and has elevated the game of everyone around him.
Being a 4,000-yard passer was once a benchmark that quarterbacks needed to strive for. Brees has managed the 4,000-yard mark in each of the past seven seasons and has hit the hallowed 5,000-yard mark three times in that same span.
It takes a lot for a player to make this list in his second year. To help incite the NFC East rivalry even more, RGIII is making the cut over New York Giants quarterback Eli Manning. Send your hate mail elsewhere, however, because after last season, this pick was easy.
As clutch as the younger Manning brother can be, Griffin wills his team to victory in ways that astound even longtime NFL aficionados. If anything, Griffin is too willing to lay his body on the line for his teammates—a trait he needs to rein in in order to stay healthy.
We all know that RGIII is a world-class athlete. To continue to be a world-class quarterback, Griffin will need to step up his game in Year 2 and stay healthy into the playoffs.
With so little talent around him in Arizona since quarterback Kurt Warner left town, Fitzgerald has to shoulder a lot of the pressure to win football games. In 2012, with a pupu platter of quarterbacks trying to throw him the ball, Fitzgerald managed only 798 yards.
This season, with new head coach Bruce Arians and a vertically based scheme, Fitzgerald and quarterback Carson Palmer should find success if they can get on the same page quickly.
Not that anyone should have forgotten, but look for Fitzgerald to remind people that he's one of the game's most talented receivers in 2013.
Fans of New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady have a legitimate gripe here.
Looking just at last season, it's completely reasonable to believe that Brady had the better year and belongs on this list. On the basis of career-long achievements, the same could be said. Yet, Rodgers gets the nod because he's clearly trending upward into the prime years of his career and is redefining what people expect out of the quarterback position.
Rodgers was asked to sit in the green room on draft night. Then, he was asked to ride the pine behind Packers legend Brett Favre. Now, he stands proudly as the highest-paid player in NFL history and the best quarterback in the league.
Stevie Johnson has made a name for himself, at times, by being the latest in a line of NFL wideouts who bring a certain "flair" to the game. While not quite at the level of former Bills teammate Terrell Owens, Johnson has found a way to elude the "No Fun League" police and draw some extra attention to his talent with his antics.
Of course, Johnson isn't just the sideshow, he's also the main event. Having long been the best player on the Bills offense, Johnson is now the best player on an offense with some serious speed and young ability.
While quarterbacks Kevin Kolb and rookie EJ Manuel might need time to get acclimated to head coach Doug Marrone's offense, Johnson should be able to shoulder the load as the Bills continue to improve the roster around him.
Dalton is, at worst, one of the best young game managers in the NFL. At best, he's a talented athlete at the quarterback position with untapped potential just begging to burst forth. He's often been tasked with simply getting the ball to wide receiver A.J. Green at all costs—and for good reason—but the Bengals have added more talent this offseason, which should allow him to get more out of the offense.
Coupled with an extremely impressive defense, Dalton has been blessed with consecutive playoff appearances in the always tough AFC North. If he's able to lead the offense into the same kind of success, Dalton and the Bengals could start winning that division with a little more regularity in the very near future.
Marshall hasn't always had a sterling reputation off the field, but his game has always reached some of the highest heights when paired with quarterback Jay Cutler, whom he's played with in both Denver and now Chicago. Marshall's game complements Cutler's perfectly as a big, physical wide receiver with both vertical speed and the ability to reach high-point passes above even elite defenders.
He may never ascend into the Johnson-Johnson-Fitzgerald realm of top receivers in this era of NFL history, but Marshall is the best No. 15 in the league today and a huge part of any success the Bears offense will have in 2013.
No. 16 is the first of many numbers that don't have quite the clout of some of the others. For years, receiver Joshua Cribbs (now with the Oakland Raiders) could probably have laid claim to this spot, but he's clearly on the decline. Minnesota Vikings backup quarterback Matt Cassel might have some voters as well.
After whittling down the candidates, Hawkins was the pick because of his Swiss Army knife-like ability as a multifaceted weapon for the Bengals. He went undrafted in 2008 out of Toldeo and ended up winning two Grey Cups as a member of the Montreal Alouettes of the Canadian Football League.
Remember, this isn't meant to put Hawkins on par with some of the other very talented players elsewhere on this list, it's just putting him on top of all the other players wearing the No. 16.
Rivers gets a lot of blame for the Chargers' failures in the last couple of seasons. Now, with former general manager A.J. Smith and former head coach Norv Turner having been shown the door, the pressure will be put solely on Rivers, and the buck will truly stop with him and no one else.
He has the ability to win at the NFL level and has done so in the past. He was under intense pressure last season with few weapons and even less protection. While it's easy to overlook Rivers because he's on the West Coast or blame him because of the Chargers' inability to win in the playoffs, he has far more talent than he's given credit for and has been among the NFL's best quarterbacks since he's been in the league.
Just wait A.J. Green...
While the talented Cincinnati Bengals receiver will have his day as the league's best No. 18 for many years to come, right now the honor goes to Mr. Manning, who is one of the NFL's best quarterbacks of all time.
We've seen how horrid a team can be without Manning (see: the 2011 Indianapolis Colts) and also how Manning can turn a team around with his presence (see: the 2012 Denver Broncos). With receiver Wes Welker added to the Broncos' offensive attack, Manning could be even better than he's been in sometime.
Anger elicited the same sort of response when the Jacksonville Jaguars drafted him in the third round of the 2012 draft. On a team that needed so much help, why a punter? Surely another punter later in the draft or in undrafted free agency could've filled the same role that Anger would.
Just a few players later, quarterback Russell Wilson was drafted by the Seattle Seahawks. Philadelphia Eagles quarterback Nick Foles, too, was on the board. Lots of talented players were on the board at numerous positions the Jaguars could've used.
Yet Anger, the punter, was thrust into duty as a Jaguar and has been awesome. No, not as awesome as Wilson, but awesome nonetheless. He was a member of the 2012 All-Rookie team and looks like he has an amazing future in the NFL.
'Cause hey, punters are people too.
Pro Football Focus lists Jones (subscription required) as the league's third-best safety in 2012.
With the ball in the air, there aren't many players in the league better than Jones, who is able to track the ball either toward or away from the passer. He's also physical enough to take the ball away from the league's bigger receivers.
Jones doesn't get the publicity he deserves—he should've been in the Pro Bowl last season—but hopefully he will take some (very) small consolation at beating out Oakland Raiders running back Darren McFadden (among others) to take home the award for best No. 20 in the NFL.
Just a few months ago, this slide may have taken a different turn. Antoine Winfield, now cornerback for the Seattle Seahawks, is still one of the league's most impressive cover men. Against the run, Winfield is as talented as they come. Sadly, he's now relegated to nickelback status in the Seahawks backfield.
Gore will get to test this ranking twice a year against Winfield. As one of the NFL's most physical rushers, it's always fun to watch Gore go up against physical defenses, and the Seahawks have one of the best.
With a stacked offensive line in front of him and a quarterback with the ability to run, Gore isn't in any danger of slowing down anytime soon. I'm putting him above Winfield because, frankly, my money will be on Gore when he and Winfield face off this season and beyond.
As long as we're on the topic of physical specimens at the running back position, Forte has slid quite a bit out of the general public's eye after years of solidifying himself as one of the best dual-threat running backs in the NFL. Whether thrown the ball or handed it, Forte has been able to do a lot of damage to opposing defenses over the years.
At only 27, Forte is still years away from the dreaded "30 wall" that NFL running backs face. With an improved offensive line (hopefully) and a more vertically based offense, Forte may have more holes than he's had in recent years.
There's still lots of tread left on those tires, and while sharing a division with Minnesota Vikings running back Adrian Peterson can't be easy, Forte isn't going to let anyone forget about him just yet.
It's impossible to talk about Foster without mentioning the zone-blocking scheme that has led to much of his success at the NFL level. However, we don't have to talk about it as some sort of magical panacea that would make any running back successful. No, the Oakland Raiders proved quite conclusively last season that the ZBS is not for everyone. It takes a special mix of talent to excel.
The Texans have that mix of talent, and much credit needs to go to Foster, who is one of the most talented ZBS backs this side of Terrell Davis. Foster's decisiveness and hard-nosed running have been a huge part of the Texans' success.
With Revis' injury last year, it was tempting (if only for a moment) to go with another player here—perhaps Seattle Seahawks running back Marshawn Lynch, though Revis might never be the same after coming back from serious ACL surgery.
Yet, Revis is one of the premier shutdown corners of our era, perhaps of all time. A hobbled Revis should still have some value, right? On top of that, one look at Minnesota Vikings running back Adrian Peterson gives Buccaneers fans hope that Revis will be just fine—maybe even a potential MVP.
Plus, Revis reportedly shelled out $50,000 to get the number from new Bucs teammate Mark Barron. That financial commitment to his number helped land him here as well.
If Tampa Bay Buccaneers cornerback Darrelle Revis falters, even for a minute, Sherman is ready to lay claim to the title of the NFL's best cornerback. Last year, Pro Football Focus listed Sherman as the No. 2 corner in all of football (subscription required), with the best coverage grade by a large margin. The term "shutdown corner" is thrown around far too much, but Sherman may actually fit the description.
Sherman's ability starts before he even takes the field. He's able to get in the heads of his opponents. Sherman has cultivated an image—one which aggravates his opponents and their fans. He then uses a special blend of natural talent and polished coverage skills to stymie any receiver in his path.
Kansas City Chiefs running back Jamaal Charles and Philadelphia Eagles running back LeSean McCoy were both considered for this spot on the list, and both would be deserving. However, Sherman is quickly becoming one of the best NFL players that no one is talking about and deserves any accolade he could possibly receive.
Once upon a time, Jennings was a good (but not considered great) member of the Indianapolis Colts secondary. He wasn't brought to Chicago to be a star, but to start opposite cornerback Charles Tillman and not screw up.
Fast forward to 2012, and Jennings is a Pro Bowl player, second-team All Pro and the first player in NFL history to record interceptions in four straight games since 1986. With pressure in front of him and opponents looking to avoid Tillman, Jennings made opposing passers pay and solidified his new reputation as one of the NFL's premier ball-hawking corners.
Rice is, often, a forgotten superstar.
The Ravens' success, for years, was predicated around a well-built defense. Rice, for his part, never needed gaudy rushing totals to be successful, as he also excelled as a receiver out of the backfield and in blitz pickup. His bowling-ball running style didn't exactly lend itself to consistent SportsCenter highlights.
Yet, Rice has been to three of the last four Pro Bowls and is a two-time All-Pro. Now, he's a Super Bowl champion and was a huge part of the Ravens amassing over 1,000 yards rushing and 1,500 total yards.
Not only did Peterson put together one of the truly special running back seasons in NFL history last year, he did so coming off of a massive knee injury. Once upon a time, backs in Peterson's scenario were simply told to pack it up and find another means of supporting themselves. Instead, Peterson's 2012 season is a testament both to his determination and to modern medicine.
Peterson has led the NFL in rushing twice—including last year—and has been an All-Pro player five times. Last year, he brought home the MVP title and carried the Vikings to the playoffs.
The scary part is that it's entirely possible the best of Peterson is yet to come.
Some players in the NFL cause a viewer to pause and make sure his or her eyes aren't being deceptive. When Thomas lines up at safety, it usually looks like a linebacker forgot his position. When Thomas makes contact with a receiver over the middle, it doesn't do much to change that perception.
There are not many defenders in the NFL today who are as imposing as Thomas. An All-Pro the last two seasons, Thomas can make even physical ball-carriers squeamish while making any quarterback think twice before throwing anywhere near him.
The second Dolphins safety on this list isn't as talented as teammate Reshad Jones, but he may be just as underrated. Clemons, who did not allow a touchdown in his zone last year, pairs nicely with Jones, and both are talented against the pass and are able to hold their own against the run.
At just 27, Clemons' best football is likely ahead of him as he and Jones continue to refine their chemistry and as the Dolphins continue to put talented players in front of them in the front seven.
Byrd was an All-Pro in his 2009 rookie season—quite the feat—and also last year after collecting five interceptions and four forced fumbles. At times during his career, he's been asked to do quite a bit as the Bills' premier defender and only now does it look like the team is truly serious about putting talent around him.
This season, Byrd is the Bills' franchise player and is looking to be locked up long term. If his play is anything like it was in 2012, the Bills can start reserving the Brinks truck that is going to be needed to pay his weekly salary.
Weddle is the league's best safety.
That fact, subjective though it may be, has been true for some time. The fact that Weddle does his damage in San Diego is part of the reason many casual fans of the game don't fully appreciate his talents. It's one of the big reasons he's only gone to one Pro Bowl (which is voted on by fans), but has been an All-Pro (voted on by the media) in each of the last three seasons.
He's a true ball hawk with underrated ability against the run. Put him in almost any other city and he'd be a superstar. Instead, he'll have to settle for the appreciation of safety-play fans everywhere and a spot above Jacksonville Jaguars running back Maurice Jones-Drew on this list.
Tillman joins fellow Bears cornerback Tim Jennings on this list, although he didn't have the gaudy interception numbers that Jennings did it 2012. Tillman's game is all about physicality and he's a throwback to the Cover 2 corners of a bygone era in NFL history.
It was that physical style of play that led Tillman to collect 10 forced fumbles in 2012. He also returned three interceptions for touchdowns. His play helped lead a Bears defense which, at times in 2012, looked unbeatable.
Williams hasn't topped 1,000 yards since 2009, amassing only 737 yards last year on 4.3 yards per carry. With teammates Jonathan Stewart (RB) and Cam Newton (QB) stealing many of his carries, Williams' lead-back role has diminished and he's just crossed the dreaded 30-year mark that running backs have learned to fear in the NFL.
Though his skills may not be what they were in 2008 or 2009, Williams is still able to make defenders miss with his trademark speed and agility.
If Bell is the first player on this list who few readers could tell me anything about, it would not surprise me in the slightest. Currently the third-string back for the Lions, Bell is in this slot because apparently the No. 35 isn't very popular with the more-successful players of the NFL.
Yet, Bell was able to make a name for himself last season as one of the better receiving backs in the league. His 899 total yards were split almost down the middle between rushing and receiving. The Lions will find a role for him this season, regardless of where he sits on the depth chart.
Like No. 35, this was a slot that took a bit of time before I eventually settled on a player who I worried would elicit too many head scratches.
Undrafted in 2009, Young has been the Redskins' starting fullback for the last two seasons. In 2012, however, Young was able to rise to a little more prominence as he blocked for quarterback Robert Griffin III and running back Alfred Morris as part of a potent zone-blocking attack.
You may not know his name, but linebackers trying to fill the gap know him well.
Shields, only 25, is an up-and-comer for the Packers, who has been talented enough to hold off rookie corner Casey Hayward even while the latter garnered Rookie of the Year publicity in 2012. Last season, Shields only allowed a completion percentage of 47.7 on passes thrown toward him—on par with names like Seattle Seahawks cornerback Richard Sherman and Kansas City Chiefs cornerback Brandon Flowers.
Praised more for his speed than anything else, it will be intriguing to see Shields' game continue to develop as the Packers defense continues to improve along with him.
Coming over from the San Francisco 49ers in free agency, Goldson will be expected (along with cornerback Darrelle Revis) to revamp the Buccaneers secondary and give division opponents like New Orleans Saints quarterback Drew Brees pause before they come out guns blazing against this team.
At only 29, Goldson is coming off an All-Pro season and two straight Pro Bowl appearances. For the Bucs, he'll be able to take advantage of plenty of ill-thrown balls thanks to a talented and attacking front four, which could inflate his numbers even more than he's already used to.
Jackson made his NFL fortune with the St. Louis Rams, where he was often the best (or only) offensive star on the team. He was a workhorse, racking up carry after carry—almost as if his coaches were attempting to bludgeon opponents into submission.
Now with the Falcons, Jackson will be paired with a ridiculously stacked set of skill position talents like receivers Roddy White and Julio Jones. He'll run behind one of the better offensive lines that have had the pleasure of blocking for him (not saying much) and he should be the final piece to a Falcons puzzle that was begging for a competent rushing attack last season.
While picking the athlete for No. 12 was difficult, No. 40 was, by far, the most arduous process on this entire list.
Denver Broncos fullback Jacob Hester is probably the biggest name to wear 40 this past season. Even historically, the number hasn't gotten much elite use. Pro Football Reference listed Hall of Famer Mike Haynes as the best player to wear the number. The second-best: Bobby Boyd, who only went to two Pro Bowls in his career.
McCray gets the nod because he spent some time this past season as a starter and core special teams player for the Cowboys. While he was picked on and eventually replaced, he had some key moments and could show up again as his play continues to mature.
For a player on the wrong side of 30, it's never a great sign when the big offseason story is how much said player will help the new rookie take over his job. That, however, is the case with Harper, who will be asked to help with the on-the-job training of new Saints safety Kenny Vaccaro.
His best days are probably behind him, but Harper can still lay the wood when meeting a ball-carrier in the box.
B/R's very own Matt Miller ranked Burnett as the 20th-best safety in the 2013 season. While he hasn't received much recognition in the NFL, Burnett is improving seemingly every day since being drafted in the third round of the 2010 NFL draft. He's capable of playing either safety position and can help shut down both the run and the pass.
Ward is one of my favorite players who no one talks about.
Much like I said about Seattle Seahawks safety Earl Thomas, there are moments when Ward looks more like a linebacker in run support than a safety. He's imposing and (as seen here) is consistently heading toward the ball with the worst of intentions.
At only 26, Ward is a valuable piece of the Browns' new defensive puzzle and should get plenty of chances to make a bigger name for himself in 2013.
Somewhat ironically, had this list been written days earlier, Bradshaw would probably have not been included because he was an unsigned free agent. The player who likely would have taken his spot—fullback Vonta Leach—was also recently released and is now in the same boat Bradshaw was.
A talented running back who rushed for over 1,000 yards in 2012, lingering injuries made Bradshaw expendable to the New York Giants, who will now build their rushing attack around second-year running back David Wilson. Bradshaw will move to the Colts and help give quarterback Andrew Luck a veteran presence as the Colts look to return to the playoffs.
Reece is the playing-style descendant of former Tampa Bay Buccaneers fullback Mike Alstott—at least in terms of well-rounded play. While the fullback position, in general, has fallen out of vogue in NFL circles, Reece has found a niche by being a threat rushing, receiving or blocking.
It was clear, at times, in 2012 that Reece was the most valuable player on the Raiders offense. That should change in 2013, but Reece will remain a dangerous weapon as the Raiders attempt to return to prominence.
I've taken some flak from Redskin' fans because I don't give Morris the credit they believe he deserves. This is because he plays in a zone-blocking scheme and has the benefit of a dual-threat quarterback to keep defenses on their heels.
That said, Morris was a different player in 2012 than what scouts saw that the East-West Shrine Game. In that time, he dropped weight, became a much faster player and decided that he wasn't going to let draft position determine how successful he was going to be in the league.
His decisiveness and hard-nosed running fit the Redskins perfectly—both in terms of scheme and in the tone this team has set.
This slot was another tough one, as the No. 47 seems to be a favorite for backup safeties and special teams players around the league. The most famous player to wear the number these days, tight end Chris Cooley, is a free agent, whose best days are likely behind him.
Conte is a fine young player with lots of room for upside after being thrust into the Bears starting lineup far too early for my taste. He's made a lot of mistakes in coverage, but he's learned from them. Still, if Conte doesn't improve markedly this season, he could see himself as the next No. 47 to find himself looking for work.
If anyone needed more proof this list is almost impossible at times, here's a long snapper.
Just to justify Muhlbach's presence on this list, I've used a picture from the 2012 Pro Bowl, where he was added by coach Mike McCarthy. The Packers coach knows Muhlbach's skill set well, as Muhlbach has played in every game but one since 2005.
Certainly there are other players who play bigger roles on their teams than a long snapper, but none of those guys went to the Pro Bowl last season.
Johnson has been an on-again/off-again starter for the Cardinals for the past couple of seasons but was signed to a three-year deal this offseason to become the starter—replacing Adrian Wilson, who is now with the New England Patriots.
Johnson is a smart player with good instincts. He's not the most athletic player on the football field, but he's polished and doesn't make a lot of mistakes. A known commodity in the box, Johnson will stick around as a starter if he can prove he's able of taking steps forward with his coverage ability.
One of the most talented pass-rushers in the league, Houston went to his first Pro Bowl last season after terrorizing quarterbacks to the tune of 10 sacks, a forced fumble and an interception. Paired with fellow linebacker Tamba Hali, it's easy to see why the Chiefs defense was able to keep them in games—even with Matt Cassel at quarterback.
If this were a list of "best centers by last name," Mike Pouncey would still make this list over his brother Maurkice of the Pittsburgh Steelers. In fact, that would probably be an even easier selection, as New England Patriots linebacker Jerod Mayo gave Pouncey a run for his money here at No. 51.
Although he's been overshadowed by his twin, Pouncey has been one of the best centers in the league for a few years now. Matt Miller's B/R 1000 series ranked him No. 2 in 2013.
With legendary linebackers Ray Lewis and Brian Urlacher retired, Willis is the lone wolf in the old premier middle linebacker model that dominated the league for so many years. Not to say that there aren't plenty of talented linebackers out there (the next slide will feature another one familiar to 49ers fans), but Willis is the remnant of an era where a stud linebacker was the be-all/end-all of an elite defense.
If pressed on who the best defender is today, Willis would be one of many worthy choices.
As promised, No. 53 looks a bit like No. 52, as the 49ers have managed to collect of couple of the league's best interior linebackers for their stellar 3-4 defense. Unlike Willis, Bowman wasn't a top pick. He was selected in the third round of the 2010 NFL draft, but he's risen to prominence and has been selected as an All-Pro the last two seasons.
Fantastic against both the run and the pass, it isn't absurd to think that Bowman could surpass his teammate as the NFL's best linebacker in the next couple of seasons.
While we're on the subject of exceptional young linebackers, Wagner has overachieved in his one season at linebacker for the Seahawks. Selected 47th overall in the 2012 NFL draft, he's was arguably the best rookie linebacker in a class that included the Carolina Panthers' Luke Kuechly and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers' Lavonte David (the latter of which also wears No. 54).
The sky is truly the limit for Wagner, who should continue to get better as a pro and has one of the league's deepest and most talented defenses around him.
This selection was one of the harder ones, as Suggs has faced some injuries and (thus) declining play in recent years. Once considered one of the NFL's sack artists, Suggs was only able to play half of the season in 2012 and, at 30, seems to have lost a step. Still a great player, Suggs isn't the elite player he was while making five Pro Bowls between 2004 and 2011.
The other possibility for this list is Houston Texans center Chris Myers. He doesn't have the name recognition of Suggs, but is one of the league's best centers and a huge component of the Texans' zone-blocking scheme. In another year or so, the mantle could be passed.
When Cushing went down last season, the Texans defense took on a completely different look.
Defensive end J.J. Watt made all the headlines in 2012—and for good reason—but even Watt couldn't stop defenses single-handedly when Cushing was placed on injured reserve in October of last season. Cushing's ability to put pressure on offenses against the run, in coverage or as a pass-rusher is unique because he is such a good athlete and is also becoming a smarter player by the day.
No. 57 wasn't much of a competition, as Hawthorne's biggest challenger for the crown was New York Jets linebacker Bart Scott—known more these days for his "Can't Wait" sound bite than for his play.
Hawthorne was supposed to be the answer for a Saints defense searching for impact players before the 2012 season, but injuries derailed the chances of that happening. He'll get a chance at inside linebacker in the Saints' new 3-4 defense, but will need to hold up against blockers better than he was able to last season.
If J.J. Watt didn't exist, Miller would be without equal as the best young pass-rusher in the NFL. Allowed to stand up as a 4-3 outside linebacker, Miller has been a quick study at the non-pass-rushing aspects of his game. Once benched in his rookie season, Miller has found more success against the run and in coverage, giving the Broncos one of the best defensive weapons in the entire league.
In space, against the league's best offensive tackles, Miller has the skill to win matchups on every single snap. As much as quarterback Peyton Manning has re-energized this team, the improved play of Miller has had just as much impact on the other side of the ball.
Earlier, I called Seattle Seahawks linebacker Bobby Wagner arguably the best linebacker of his class. It's "arguably" because a lot of very smart people would put Kuechly ahead of the rest of his peers. In fact, Kuechly took home Rookie of the Year honors and led the league with 168 tackles—not just rookies, he led the entire league.
There's room for improvement in Kuechly's game. He needs to fight off blocks better and could be more polished in both pass-rushing and in coverage. However, it's clear that the Panthers have a superstar for their defense and someone who can be a building block into the future.
As one of the best pass-blocking centers in the league, Wisniewski has been a bright spot for a Raiders team that hasn't had very many of those in recent seasons. He's still very young, and it's exciting to think of how Wisniewski's game could continue to improve in the coming seasons—especially as the Raiders continue to add talented offensive pieces.
The competition at No. 62 for Dahl was Green Bay Packers offensive lineman Evan Dietrich-Smith and Baltimore Ravens tackle Terrence Cody. It wasn't an easy selection, and Cody is probably the most physically talented player on the list with the brightest future, but Dahl had some fine moments in 2012 and had the most solid season of the three.
A better pass-protector than a run-blocker, Dahl is probably on his way out sooner rather than later as a full-time NFL starter, but he should win the right guard position for the Rams this season as they look to improve protection for quarterback Sam Bradford.
After the Houston Texans' Chris Myers, Montgomery is the best zone-blocking center in the league and one of the NFL's best overall. He's athletic, able to find his targets at the second level and works well identifying blitz pickups—everything a young quarterback like Robert Griffin III needs in front of him.
There were plenty of veteran linemen who might be their team's fans' choice for this slot, but none are the impact starter that Montgomery has been for the Redskins.
This slot came down to a pedestrian right tackle in Strief or a struggling center in Indianapolis Colts Samson Satele. Both are replaceable pieces to offensive lines that would love to be better across the board.
Strief gets the honors here at No. 64 because he has a serviceable skill. He's a two-point pass-blocker who can stand up most opponents he sees—most of the time—at defensive end. Against the elite speed-rushers in the league, he'll get beaten often and doesn't create mismatches, but he can get the job done for a quick-release quarterback like Drew Brees.
Center play is fun to watch and Sullivan is a good example of a young player taught the right way. He's not a mauler. He's not a great athlete, so linebackers can elude him, at times, at the next level. Still, he gets the job done because he's an all-around talented blocker who doesn't make a lot of mistakes.
He doesn't get a lot of the credit, but Sullivan is a big reason why running back Adrian Peterson had so many gaping holes to run through up the middle of defenses in 2012.
Grubbs is considered one of the best guards in the NFL, and the Saints brought him over to be just that for them in 2012. His $36 million, five-year contract made him one of the highest-paid linemen in the league. While Grubbs didn't exactly live up to those lofty standards last season, he was very good for the Saints, and good enough to be the best No. 66 in the league.
Where Grubbs can improve is in blitz recognition, where he often looked lost trying to defend quarterback Drew Brees. He would step back in pass protection and lose sight of where the pressure was coming from, leading to rushed throws.
If Grubbs can step back up to Pro Bowl form, the Saints offense would benefit dramatically.
Kalil is best known, today, as the player who took out a full-page Super Bowl prediction ad for a team that couldn't even finish over .500. Part of the Panthers' woes last season was the loss of Kalil, who only played in five games. Losing your best lineman is rough for any team, but on a team built around the run, the loss of an interior blocker was too much to overcome.
At his best, Kalil is an imposing all-around blocker who has the athleticism to reach the perimeter and can road grade on the inside. If he stays healthy in 2013, the Panthers could come a little bit closer to the success he wants them to have.
Coming out of Wisconsin, Zeitler was one of my favorite players in the 2012 NFL draft. A fantastic technician (most Wisconsin lineman are), Zeitler has always been polished, both in run-blocking and pass-protection. When the Bengals made him a first-round pick, they knew they were getting an impact player.
Even they couldn't have hoped for the immediate success he had as a rookie.
Last season, Zeitler was the point of attack for most of the tough rushing yards that the Bengals picked up. He improved as the season went on and, in the final weeks, no one was playing right guard at his level.
At 31, Jared Allen isn't the player he once was—regardless of sack totals that are inflated by the players around him and the scheme he plays in. Seriously though, that isn't a "diss" against Allen, because he's still a fantastic player. It's just a reminder that, as good as he is, he was once even better, and that's incredible to think about.
Last season, Allen collected 11 sacks and 47 quarterback hurries as he helped lead the Vikings defense toward the playoffs.
This was one of the tougher slots on the list to fill because a number of talented linemen wear No. 70. It came down to New England Patriots guard Logan Mankins and DeVito.
The Chiefs defensive lineman was given the spot based on their relative play last season. Mankins struggled for much of the season and was given a Pro Bowl spot on reputation. DeVito played out of his mind and was rewarded with a handsome three-year contract.
A staunch run defender, DeVito improved his worth last season by showing that he can control the line of scrimmage against pass-protectors and help collapse the pocket, making life easier for pass-rushers. With outside linebackers Justin Houston and Tamba Hali in Kansas City, DeVito should earn every penny of his new deal.
One of the best guards in the league, Sitton provides what little positive there is to talk about when discussing the Packers' pass-protection in front of Aaron Rodgers. He's been a big part of the Packers' success in a division where he's asked to face defensive lineman like Detroit Lion Ndamukong Suh, Minnesota Viking Kevin Williams and Chicago Bear Henry Melton on a weekly basis.
It will be interesting to see how well Sitton run blocks with the rookie running backs that the Packers have brought on board, but there aren't many in the league who anchor as well against power rushers as Sitton does, so he has the strength to dominate at the point of attack.
As an offensive tackle, Osemele looked overmatched for the Ravens. It is no surprise, then, that the Ravens offensive line (and offense as a whole) started to take shape as Osemele moved inside to his more natural guard position.
It is not going overboard to say that the Ravens may not have won the Super Bowl with Osemele at tackle, but having a dominant guard was a big part of their playoff success.
Inside, there's little reason Osemele can't be one of the NFL's best lineman for many seasons to come.
With St. Louis Rams offensive tackle Jake Long taking a step back last season, Thomas is the last of the "blue chip" tackle prospects who have come out of the draft in recent years. Think about it: No matter how good prospects like Minnesota Vikings Matt Kalil, Kansas City Chiefs Eric Fisher or Jacksonville Jaguars Luke Joeckel have been, the qualifier is always thrown out there—well, they're no Joe Thomas, but...
Thomas stepped in and was, almost immediately, one of the best in the NFL at his position. That's rare. That's ridiculously rare. He hasn't let up much in recent seasons and is one of the reasons that the Browns' best trait is their offensive line.
It's a testament to how bad the Jets' skill position players were last season that two of their lineman have made this list and a third (offensive guard Brandon Moore, No. 65) was awfully close.
Mangold has been one of the league's best power-blocking centers since he was drafted and was one of the best centers in the league last season, even though he took a step back compared to his own lofty standard of play.
Like a few others in recent slides, Wilfork's play has declined slightly in the past year, but that's only because he was so incredibly dominant at one point. Like teammate Logan Mankins, Wilfork's Pro Bowl selection last year was probably more about his name recognition than anything else, but he's more than talented enough to be the best No. 75 in the NFL today.
Wilfork's best attribute for the Patriots is his ability to play at a high level at a number of defensive tackle techniques, giving the Patriots flexibility to play in either a 3-4 or 4-3 defense and get almost equal production out of the middle of their line.
When it comes to run-blocking lineman, Brown is the gold standard. (See what I did there?)
Brown fits in perfectly with the Texans' zone-blocking scheme and was asked to be the focal point of the rushing attack more often than not in 2012 after right tackle Derek Newton failed to adequately replace 2011 right tackle Winston.
Pro Football Focus (subscription required) listed Brown as the second-best tackle in the NFL last season, but many would argue he is the best all-around offensive lineman in the league today.
At 6'5", 331 pounds, Iupati is a mountain of a man on the interior of the 49ers offensive line. He's a huge (literally) part of the 49ers' success at running the football and is surprisingly fleet of foot when it comes to blocking for quarterback Colin Kaepernick at the next level.
As Iupati continues to improve his game, it would be nice to see him with more polish in pass protection, but he was an easy choice for No. 77...if only because B/R nixed the idea of putting my high school football picture here.
Clady was not a good fit for quarterback Tim Tebow and suffered while he was asked to block for a quarterback who couldn't throw. With Peyton Manning under center, things improved quickly, and Clady jumped back up to join the ranks of the NFL's best linemen.
At 26, Clady is set for a huge payday after being franchise tagged this offseason. If he can remain healthy and continue his high level of play, he has a chance to be the league's highest-paid lineman next season.
At this point in his career, Herremans is best suited as a reserve lineman. He's been pressed into duty by the Eagles because their line play has been so poor in recent seasons. He can play guard or tackle and was serviceable as a right tackle last season.
This season, Herremans will play right guard, which is a good fit for him. He'll never be one of the NFL's best guards, but his solid play and workman-like attitude make him a great choice for the best No. 79.
After a slew of tough choices in the linebacker and lineman sections of the order, things get a bit easier as we get back to the skill position players. Johnson, as much as anyone on his list, has solidified his status as the best of his jersey number in the league, and it will not be surprising, in the slightest, to see it retired by the Texans one day.
Yet, as talented as Johnson is, it's interesting to think that he's been in a rough position most of his career. He's had a good quarterback in Matt Schaub, but there are certainly better quarterbacks out there who could have inflated his numbers. He's been in a run-heavy offense for most of his career and lacked a true No. 2 target to draw coverage away from him.
As much notoriety as he gets, he probably deserves even more.
If you ask people who the best non-QB in the NFL is today, Megatron's name will come up more often than not. Much like Houston Texans receiver Andre Johnson, Calvin hasn't always had it easy in the NFL. For years, guys like Dan Orlovsky and Daunte Culpepper were throwing him the ball. He lived through the Matt Millen era and came out on the other side—that alone can't be easy.
The size and speed combination that Johnson brings to the table is almost without equal—even in the NFL. He's truly a once-in-an-era-type player.
For Witten, 30 looks like the new 25, as 2012 was one of his better seasons—especially when one considers everything the Cowboys had to go through in terms of protection (or lack thereof). At different times, Witten looked like both the Cowboys' best vertical weapon and their best blocker.
As tight ends go, Witten doesn't fit in as well with the "new breed" that is coming into the NFL, but he and the Atlanta Falcons' Tony Gonzalez are the gold standard of the old guard, and quarterback Tony Romo couldn't ask for a better safety valve.
Welker is moving from one of the all-time best quarterbacks in league history—Tom Brady—to another in Peyton Manning. The only real difference is that the Broncos have a better offensive line and more complementary skill position players.
Yeah, 2013 could be a good year for Welker.
At times, Welker was asked to do too much for the New England Patriots. For the Broncos, he'll get to do what he does best—eat up the middle of the field and move the sticks after the catch. He does that better than almost anyone.
While Julio Jones is the more physically talented of the Falcons wide receivers and certainly has the brighter future ahead of him, White has been the steadier and more impactful receiver over the past couple of seasons. That tide may certainly turn in the upcoming seasons, but it is White (not Jones) who is quarterback Matt Ryan's first and most trusted target when a first down is needed.
For years, White has been just outside the discussion for best receiver in the NFL, as he's been overshadowed by names like Detroit's Calvin Johnson and Arizona's Larry Fitzgerald. Yet, he's managed to make four Pro Bowls and could make a few more before he's done.
Earlier, I mentioned the "new breed" of tight ends, and it's possible that Davis was the first real member of that group. The problem is, he got to the NFL before coaches realized what to do with him. Never a great blocker, Davis has improved immensely there from an effort perspective and polished his technique over the past couple of seasons.
Where Davis has really improved, though, is at the finer points of being a receiving tight end. In college, Davis was able to get open because he was just that much better as an athlete. In the NFL, Davis has learned to feel coverages and work himself to green grass.
With receiver Michael Crabtree out for most of 2013, Davis will be a focal point of the 49ers passing attack.
No. 86 was a split vote between a tight end who underwhelmed last season and a tight end who isn't on a roster right now—free agent Todd Heap. Miller gets the nod even if Heap was the better player over their careers because it's possible that Heap doesn't find work this season while Miller has a chance to get better in his second year with quarterback Russell Wilson.
With wide receiver Percy Harvin drawing more attention away from the middle of the field, Miller could be the X-factor that puts the Seahawks offense over the top.
Forget the partying (if you can) or the injury issues (which never seem to go away and might be somewhat connected to the partying) and remember, if only for a moment, that no defender in the league can cover Gronkowski.
He's the perfect combination of receiving ability, size and speed. He can bust the seam with the best of them against the best of safeties. Or, he can line up on the outside and take a cornerback to school. At his best, he's untouchable. The only thing bringing Gronk down...is Gronk.
Thomas, like many athletic wide receivers, came into the league and looked like he was almost surprised that athleticism alone wasn't going to bring success at the pro level. Then, like many athletic receivers fail to do, Thomas committed himself to improving his game.
Last season, Thomas looked like one of the better route-runners in the league. This, just a few years after running some of the laziest routes possible in pre-draft workouts. Having quarterback Peyton Manning around has certainly helped, but Thomas deserves a lot of credit for improving his game and becoming one of the best receivers in the NFL.
Smith has been the lone bright spot in the Panthers passing attack for quarterback Cam Newton's entire career. In fact, the lack of talent around Smith has both kept him putting up big numbers but has also stymied the Panthers offense.
Smith is a receiver whose skill is predicated around getting separation deep, but he's lost a step and—while still very talented—needs some help if he's going to continue to be a big factor. He's been a great weapon for Newton to have around, but he's no longer enough.
The off-the-field incidents and on-the-field anger management issues have marred an otherwise solid career so far for Ndamukong Suh. Ironically, it was Year 1 where Suh played his worst football, but high sack numbers (inflated by a one-dimensional playing style that left the Lions' run defense vulnerable) gave people a false sense of his abilities.
Now, Suh is playing a much better, more well-balanced game, but the sack numbers are lower, so people assume his play has fallen off.
In reality, Suh is one of the best defensive tackles in the game, and sack totals have never been a good barometer of interior defensive line play.
Wake was asked to put his hand in the dirt as a 4-3 defensive end last season after spending the previous year as an outside linebacker. He responded with one of the best defensive end seasons in recent memory and was a dominant force against both the run and the pass.
The Dolphins responded by doubling down on athletic pass-rushers, bringing in defensive end Dion Jordan in the first round of the draft.
With more blockers drawn away from him, Wake is a can't-miss player this season because he'll have a chance to make a game-changing play on every snap.
Like the New England Patriots' Vince Wilfork, Ngata is one of those players who could stop playing tomorrow, but still get sent to a string of Pro Bowls because he's been such a dominant player. Also like Wilfork, Ngata's best attribute doesn't even show up on the stat sheet, because his ability to play different positions along the line and in different fronts gives the Ravens a lot of flexibility.
With a lot of turnover on the Ravens defense in 2013, Ngata will be counted upon to be at his best to provide stability. My guess is that he shows up in a big way.
Like the player drafted before him—Detroit Lions tackle Ndamukong Suh—McCoy's play has often been overshadowed by people's stat-sheet-induced misconception of his play. In truth, McCoy was one of the league's best defensive linemen last season, but didn't always get the credit he deserved because the rest of his defense let him down.
McCoy wins individual battles on most snaps he takes. It will surprise a lot of people this season—now that the Buccaneers have added a lot of talent to their defense through the draft, free agency and trades—that McCoy can make a big impact.
Ware is switching positions this season and will play defensive end in the Cowboys' new Tampa 2 defense. Thankfully, for Ware, the responsibilities are roughly the same, as ends in that scheme are simply asked to pin their ears back and get after the quarterback—his specialty.
With so many young defenders blowing up the league in recent years, Ware has been overshadowed a bit. A position change could be just what the doctor ordered to get the spotlight back on him.
Nose tackles are often underappreciated—that goes both for those in the 3-4 or the 1-techniques in 4-3 defenses. There aren't many stats that showcase what Williams does well, but he is a phenomenal player and keeps a lot of blockers off of his teammates.
Don't believe me? Last season, Pro Football Focus (subscription required) had Williams ranked as the No. 3 defensive tackle in the entire NFL—so did B/R's Matt Miller.
Earlier in the slideshow, we talked about how the Jets offensive line was let down by their skill-position players. Now, let's flip the script and talk about how the Jets defensive line was failed by their linebacking corps (corpse might be a better spelling of what happened).
Wilkerson, along with defensive lineman Mike DeVito (now with the Kansas City Chiefs), played spectacularly last season, and both made this list as the best player at their jersey number. With even a marginal pass-rusher behind them, the Jets defense could've been much better.
For years, Atkins was the best defensive player no one was talking about. Now, it seems as if so many people are saying that about him, he can hardly lay claim to the title any longer.
Atkins is a force up the middle. If you click back to the Ndamukong Suh and Gerald McCoy slides, you'll note that I called both of them "one of the best." Well, that's because Atkins has surpassed them and looks like the best defensive tackle in the entire league.
At times last season, the Redskins defense let their offense down. Part of that was due to the lack of talent in the secondary—a problem the front office tried to fix this offseason. Another big factor was the loss of Orakpo early last season. He tore his left pectoral muscle in Week 2 last season.
It's been a while since we've seen him, but Orakpo is one of the most enjoyable pass-rushers to watch, as he combines speed and athleticism with both brute strength and tenacity. NFC East quarterbacks need to watch out. Orakpo wants to be defensive player of the year this season, and he has the talent to do it.
In a list of superlatives, there has been a lot of "best this" and "best that" in the previous slides. Let's end with one more: J.J. Watt's 2012 season was one of the best single defensive performances in the past decade.
Watt changed the way we look at the 3-4 defensive end position. He collects sacks like a 3-4 outside linebacker and pass deflections like a cornerback. He is a ridiculous athlete with a motor that defies description. There could not be a better player to end this list with. He's definitely the best No. 99 in the NFL.
Heck, he might be the best player at any jersey number.
Michael Schottey is the NFL National Lead Writer for Bleacher Report and a member of the Pro Football Writers of America. Find more of his stuff at The Go Route.