Ultimate Ranking: The 100 Best Players in the National Football League
The NFL Network released its version of the top 100 players following the 2012 season. The highly controversial list obviously sparked some debate.
After all, what list ranking the 100 best players in the game isn't going to be controversial?
Personally, I had my fair share of issues with the list. Whether it was the ridiculous bias toward the Super Bowl champion Baltimore Ravens or the tendency to drastically overrate once-dominant players at the end of potential Hall of Fame careers, the list was far from my standards.
Then again, the list was compiled from input by players from around the league, so who am I to criticize it?
Anyway, I made my own list of the top 100 players in the National Football League.
For my list, I made a point of rating players based on a combination of their 2012 season and the couple of seasons before. I mostly looked for trends.
When a dominant running back like Maurice Jones-Drew struggles through an injury-plagued 2012 season, he still receives the benefit of the doubt in my rankings. After all, he won the rushing title in 2011 and has been an elite player for a number of years. The 2012 season was the anomaly, not the norm.
But a player like Chicago Bears cornerback Tim Jennings, who led the league with nine interceptions in 2012, did not make my top 100. That's because Jennings is a 29-year-old corner who has never displayed elite talent until 2012—and it helped that fellow Bears corner Charles Tillman turned in his best season as well.
I also didn't base my rankings off of projections. Trent Richardson is my pick to lead the NFL in rushing in 2013, but he shouldn't come close to the top 100 based on his rookie season.
You get the point. It's not perfect. No rankings list can be. It's all completely subjective. I'm sure the average fan will disagree and think that each player on his team was vastly underrated, but there was no intentional bias in any of my rankings.
I also added a (+) if a player is clearly going to improve (example: Andrew Luck) and a (-) if a player is still productive but his best years are definitely past him (example: Antoine Winfield).
Finally, I value the quarterback position much more than any other position. Throw in the ridiculous passing totals we've been seeing in recent seasons and you can understand why the top several players on the list are quarterbacks.
Likewise, a dominant guard or center simply will not be ranked higher than an equally dominant tackle.
10 Players Who Just Missed the Cut
- Trent Williams, Washington Redskins, Left Tackle
- Max Unger, Seattle Seahawks, Center
- Daryl Washington, Arizona Cardinals, Inside Linebacker
- Brian Orakpo, Washington Redskins, Outside Linebacker
- Kyle Williams, Buffalo Bills, Defensive Tackle
- Justin Houston, Kansas City Chiefs, Outside Linebacker
- Joe Haden, Cleveland Browns, Cornerback
- Brandon Flowers, Kansas City Chiefs, Cornerback
- LaMarr Woodley, Pittsburgh Steelers, Outside Linebacker
- Michael Crabtree, San Francisco 49ers, Wide Receiver
10 Up-and-Coming Players Who Could Be on This List by 2014
- Janoris Jenkins, St. Louis Rams, Cornerback
- Bobby Wagner, Seattle Seahawks, Linebacker
- Brandon Graham, Philadelphia Eagles, Outside Linebacker
- Trent Richardson, Cleveland Browns, Running Back
- Robert Quinn, St. Louis Rams, Defensive End
- Chris Harris, Denver Broncos, Cornerback
- Fletcher Cox, Philadelphia Eagles, Defensive End
- Tyron Smith, Dallas Cowboys, Left Tackle
- Marcell Dareus, Buffalo Bills, Defensive Tackle
- Andy Dalton, Cincinnati Bengals, Quarterback
Okay, enough. Let's begin. And if you have any questions on why a specific player is ranked at a specific spot, please leave a comment and let me know. I'll be happy to provide my opinion.
Unless otherwise noted, statistics and position rankings courtesy of Pro Football Focus (subscription required).
Follow me on Twitter at @eaglescentral.
100. Tyson Clabo, Miami Dolphins, Right Tackle
The Miami Dolphins collected one of the most underrated free-agent signings of the offseason when they inked tackle Tyson Clabo to help with the development of sophomore quarterback Ryan Tannehill.
Clabo is one of the league's best pass-blocking offensive tackles and has been rated as a top-20 tackle in the league for each of the past five seasons.
99. Troy Polamalu, Pittsburgh Steelers, Safety (-)
Polamalu has struggled with injuries recently, missing 11 games in 2012 and nine in 2009. But when healthy, he's still one of the best safeties in the NFL.
The 32-year-old has been a Pro Bowler seven times and made the All-Pro team in each of the last three full seasons of his career. The Steelers advanced to the Super Bowl in two of those years.
If Polamalu can return to elite form in 2013, the Steelers would surprise the AFC by emerging as a playoff team.
98. Reggie Wayne, Indianapolis Colts, Wide Receiver (-)
Andrew Luck didn't have a lot working in his favor as a rookie quarterback. He had a weak offensive line, a poor defense and rookies at running back, receiver and tight end.
But you know what he did have? Reggie Wayne.
The 34-year-old veteran turned in his usual dominant season, catching 106 passes for 1,355 yards and five touchdowns. Add in Wayne's blocking ability and you have a receiver any rookie quarterback would be Luck-y to have.
97. Matt Kalil, Minnesota Vikings, Left Tackle (+)
Matt Kalil is already one of the best in the game, as he turned in a spectacular rookie season blocking for Christian Ponder and Adrian Peterson.
He's going to be an absolute rock over the next decade, as the fourth overall pick in the 2012 draft could very well become the league's best offensive lineman by 2015.
96. Michael Roos, Tennessee Titans, Left Tackle
Veteran Michael Roos is the leader of what is expected to be one of the league's top offensive lines in 2013.
Roos, who turns 32 this season, has quietly established himself as one of the top offensive tackles in the game. He's a tremendous pass-blocker who makes life just a little bit easier for Jake Locker.
95. Reshad Jones, Miami Dolphins, Safety (+)
He's as under-the-radar as they come, but other than Cameron Wake, Reshad Jones is the best player on the Miami Dolphins.
He quietly enjoyed a breakout season at safety in 2012, collecting 74 tackles and four interceptions. He also surrendered just a 38.0 passer rating, the best mark among all starting safeties.
94. Cam Newton, Carolina Panthers, Quarterback
Cam Newton is easily the most difficult quarterback to rank in the NFL.
Physically, he's got all the tools to become the greatest combination of passing and running in the history of the sport—that's no exaggeration.
However, he has yet to show that he can post big passing numbers or lead the Panthers to the brink of the postseason.
Newton followed up his Offensive Rookie of the Year campaign with a highly over-criticized sophomore season. All he did in 2012 was play in 16 games, again, with 3,869 passing yards, 19 touchdowns and an 86.2 passer rating. He added 127 rushes for 741 yards and eight scores.
For Newton, the 2013 season will be about capitalizing on the hot finish to 2012, as the Panthers won five of the final six games.
93. John Sullivan, Minnesota Vikings, Center
Adrian Peterson stole the show in 2012, and deservedly so, as he rushed for 2097 yards on a ridiculous average of 6.0 yards per carry.
But Peterson's biggest help came from his center John Sullivan, arguably the most underappreciated offensive lineman in the league.
Sullivan earned First-Team All-NFL honors from Pro Football Writers of America and Pro Football Focus. The second-longest-tenured member of the Vikings offense is currently in the prime of his career.
92. Gerald McCoy, Tampa Bay Buccaneers, Defensive Tackle
The former top-five pick in the 2010 draft finally enjoyed a quiet breakout season in 2012.
On the strength of 30 tackles and five sacks, McCoy and wound up rated as the second-best defensive tackle in the game. Expect a second Pro Bowl selection for the young phenom in 2013.
91. Anthony Spencer, Dallas Cowboys, Defensive End
The former first-round draft pick finally emerged as a star with a big 2012 season that saw him ranked as the top 3-4 outside linebacker in the league.
Spencer collected 11 sacks and recorded 95 combined tackles. He was also rated the fifth-best defensive player in the league against the run.
The combination of DeMarcus Ware and Spencer should be one of the league's top pass-rushing duos in 2013.
90. Percy Harvin, Seattle Seahawks, Wide Receiver
One of the most dangerous all-around players in the league, Percy Harvin is literally a threat to score every time he touches the ball. He was actually a first-half league MVP candidate before suffering a season-ending injury after just nine games.
He still managed to lead the league with 22 missed tackles after the catch. He dropped just a single pass and the 76.5 completion percentage on passes thrown his way was the third-best mark in the NFL.
Oh, and he averaged 35.9 yards per kick return, the third-highest single-season mark in NFL history according to Pro-Football-Reference.com. His 105-yard touchdown is the ninth-longest score ever.
The sky is the limit for Harvin in 2013. He'll have the opportunity to play with one of the game's best young quarterbacks in Russell Wilson. He just needs to prove that he can stay healthy, which unfortunately could be a problem.
89. Eugene Monroe, Jacksonville Jaguars, Left Tackle
Monroe receives almost no publicity, but the former first-round pick has very quietly blossomed into one of the more consistent and reliable offensive tackles in the game.
He is the heart and soul of the Jaguars' offensive line. Monroe is good enough that the Jags will keep him at left tackle and move rookie first-round draft pick Luke Joeckel to the right side.
88. Wes Welker, Denver Broncos, Wide Receiver
A model of consistency, Wes Welker has averaged 112 receptions, 1,243 yards and six touchdowns over the last six seasons. The 2012 season was just a typical year, as Tom Brady's favorite target caught 118 passes for 1,354 yards and six scores.
Now in Denver, Welker's production is expected to slip, as the 32-year-old is the third receiver on the team's depth chart behind Demaryius Thomas and Eric Decker.
87. Andrew Whitworth, Cincinnati Bengals, Left Tackle
One of the more underrated players in the league, Andrew Whitworth earned his first Pro Bowl selection during the 2012 season when he helped the Cincinnati Bengals earn their second straight postseason bid.
Whitworth allowed just 11 quarterback hurries all season. Only one player in the league participated in more snaps and allowed fewer hurries.
He has rated as a top-12 offensive tackle in the NFL in each of the past four seasons, including a No. 1 ranking after the 2010 season.
86. Steve Smith, Carolina Panthers, Wide Receiver
Steve Smith is one of the more underrated receivers in the NFL. The 34-year-old veteran is quietly building a legitimate case for the Hall of Fame.
Smith has averaged 76 catches, 1,284 yards and six scores over the past two seasons without the benefit of a legitimate No. 2 receiving threat. Take him away from Cam Newton and the Panthers quarterback would almost literally be a one-man show.
It will be interesting to see how the Panthers try to replace Smith's production as he reaches his mid-30s.
85. Julius Peppers, Chicago Bears, Defensive End
At 33, Peppers is still one of the game's top defensive ends. He recorded 11.5 sacks and recovered four fumbles in 2012. According to Pro-Football-Reference, his Approximate Value score of 18 ranked him in a tie as the fourth-best player in the league.
The former No. 2 overall pick is still going strong as he enters his 14th season. Expect the Hall of Fame to come calling soon after Peppers finally retires.
84. Muhammad Wilkerson, New York Jets, Defensive End (+)
One of the most underrated players in the league, Muhammad Wilkerson is far from a household name. That's a shame, because the former first-round pick established himself as one of the best 3-4 defensive ends in the league in 2012.
He collected five sacks, forced three fumbles and scored on a fumble return. He also recorded 57 tackles and was rated the second-best run-stopper in the league.
The addition of Sheldon Richardson and the continued development of Quinton Coples should only help Wilkerson in 2013. He could be one of the few bright spots on the Jets.
83. Chris Long, St. Louis Rams, Defensive End (+)
Chris Long has a chance to become an even better defensive end than his dad. That's saying something, because his father Howie collected 84 sacks and earned a spot in the Hall of Fame.
Chris Long has led the entire NFL in quarterback hurries in each of the past three seasons. The No. 2 overall pick in the 2008 draft isn't a household name because he's averaged 11.0 sacks in each of the last three years. He also is a poor run defender.
But as far as putting pressure on the quarterback goes, Long is one of the best in the business.
Playing on one of the league's top defensive lines should allow him to challenge for the league lead in sacks in 2013. That will finally gain him the recognition he deserves—as well as opening up well-deserved comparisons between him and his father.
82. Mike Iupati, San Francisco 49ers, Left Guard (+)
The former first-round pick has improved in each of his three seasons in the NFL, earning his first All-Pro selection during 2012.
At 26 years old, he will be one of the cornerstones of the league's top offensive line for 5-10 more years. The 49ers have a whole bunch of replacements at running back for when Frank Gore finally hangs up his cleats, and whoever the next RB is will be drastically helped by Iupati's dominant run-blocking.
81. Mike Pouncey, Miami Dolphins, Center (+)
Maurkice Pouncey is the better-known Pouncey twin, but Mike is the better player.
Two seasons into his career, the Miami Dolphins center hasn't earned any All-Pro or Pro Bowl selections, but those honors should be coming soon. He showed tremendous improvement from his rookie season to his sophomore year and that should continue in 2013.
Pouncey is a terrific run-blocker and an above-average pass-blocker, as he allowed just three quarterback hurries during the 2012 season.
His focus in 2013 will be on helping the development of Ryan Tannehill and Lamar Miller, the two most important pieces of the Dolphins' puzzle on offense.
80. Maurice Jones-Drew, Jacksonville Jaguars, Running Back (-)
MJD isn't just the best player on the Jacksonville Jaguars offense. He is the Jaguars offense.
In 2011, Jones-Drew captured the rushing title, carrying the ball 343 times for 1,606 yards and eight scores. However, he missed most of the 2012 season with a foot injury.
Jones-Drew's return in 2013 will be instrumental not just for the Jaguars offense, but for helping to develop quarterback Blaine Gabbert, who is in a make-or-break year concerning his starting position.
79. Carl Nicks, Tampa Bay Buccaneers, Left Guard
One of the big free-agent signings before the 2012 season, Carl Nicks played in just seven games, as he was slowed by a toe injury.
He's still an elite lineman, rated second, first and fourth among NFL guards over the 2011, 2010 and 2009 seasons, respectively.
The Buccaneers will be counting on Nicks, as Josh Freeman looks to strike it big in a contract year and Doug Martin looks to avoid a sophomore slump.
78. Randall Cobb, Green Bay Packers, Wide Receiver (+)
Randall Cobb returned a kick for a 108-yard touchdown in his first game in the NFL and he hasn't looked back since.
Percy Harvin and Tavon Austin are the big names this offseason for their all-around abilities, but Cobb is the best of the three. He has excellent speed and is literally a threat to score every time he touches the ball.
In 2012, Cobb caught 80 of 102 passes (78.4 percent) for 954 yards and eight scores. He ran 10 times for 132 yards. He averaged 25.4 yards per kick return. He scored on a punt return touchdown. All this led to a team-best 2,342 all-purpose yards.
77. Antoine Winfield, Seattle Seahawks, Cornerback (-)
Quite simply, Antoine Winfield is the ageless wonder. The fact that he's still in the NFL heading into his 15th season is impressive. The fact that he's one of the league's best players is nothing short of incredible.
During the 2012 season, at the age of 35, Winfield didn't allow a single touchdown pass. He collected 87 tackles, second-most among NFL cornerbacks, and was rated the best player at his position in the league.
Winfield can do it all. He can stop the run and shut down the pass. He's physical. He's intelligent. And he's now the top nickel cornerback in the league, as he will play third fiddle to Richard Sherman and Brandon Browner during the 2013 season.
76. Luke Kuechly, Carolina Panthers, Middle Linebacker
It may seem a bit premature to call Luke Kuechly the next Ray Lewis or Brian Urlacher, but NFL.com analyst Gil Brandt doesn't think it is. After all, the Panthers' first-round draft pick turned in one of the more impressive seasons by a defensive player in recent memory in 2012.
Kuechly collected a combined 165 tackles, the most in the National Football League. He also recovered three fumbles, intercepted two passes and defensed eight passes.
Kuechly's production will only be helped in 2013 when veteran Jon Beason returns from an injury that caused him to miss 12 games in 2012.
No worries, though. Head coach Ron Rivera has already told The Charlotte Observer's Joe Person and Jonathan Jones that Kuechly is likely the team's permanent middle linebacker, meaning Beason will be moved to the outside.
75. Terrell Suggs, Baltimore Ravens, Outside Linebacker
On a personal note, the 2012 season was a complete disaster for Terrell Suggs. He tore his Achilles tendon in the offseason and played in just eight games.
He was healthy for the entire postseason, however, as the Ravens collected their second Super Bowl title in franchise history. Suggs' two sacks and 10 tackles against Peyton Manning and the Broncos in the divisional round was one of the biggest individual performances of the year.
In 2013, Suggs will look to return to the elite form he showed in 2011, when he recorded 14 sacks, forced seven fumbles and grabbed two interceptions en route to Defensive Player of the Year honors.
His veteran leadership will be counted on, as the defense lost future Hall of Famers Ray Lewis and Ed Reed in the offseason.
74. Champ Bailey, Denver Broncos, Cornerback (-)
Bailey allowed a 67.3 passer rating and just a single touchdown pass during 2012. He also recorded 60 tackles in 63 attempts, one of the best marks in the league.
Forget about his disastrous divisional round performance against the Baltimore Ravens. Although declining, the future Hall of Famer is still one of the best in the game.
73. Frank Gore, San Francisco 49ers, Running Back
One of the league's most consistent and durable running backs, Gore has topped 200 carries for seven straight seasons. His 1,214 rushing yards and 4.7 yards per carry in 2012 were right on par with his career averages.
According to Niners Nation, he also faced eight men in the box on more than 42 percent of his rushes—the highest rate of any running back in the NFL in 2012.
He came up huge for the 49ers in the postseason, averaging 109 yards and a touchdown on five yards per carry in the three postseason games.
Gore turned 30 this offseason and the 49ers are absolutely loaded at the running back position. It will be interesting to see if the veteran is still the primary back in 2013.
72. Logan Mankins, New England Patriots, Left Guard
The second-highest-paid guard in the league, Logan Mankins is 31 years old and has shown no signs of slowing down.
Mankins has earned five straight Pro Bowl selections while blocking for quarterback Tom Brady. He's also helped Stevan Ridley develop into the team's best running back since Corey Dillon.
71. Colin Kaepernick, San Francisco 49ers, Quarterback
Colin Kaepernick thrived after he was thrust into a starting role in the middle of the 2012 season, winning five of seven starts in the regular season. He tossed 10 touchdowns against just three interceptions.
Against the Packers in the divisional round of the playoffs, Kaepernick turned in one of the greatest single-game playoff performances in history. He threw for 263 yards and two scores while adding 181 rushing yards and two scores on the ground.
He led the 49ers back from a 17-0 deficit in the NFC Championship Game and almost completed a 22-point comeback in the Super Bowl.
Next season will be Kaepernick's first as a full-season starter. He has the bonus of playing for arguably the most complete roster in the league, but the pressure is already on for the 25-year-old phenom—especially after losing top receiver Michael Crabtree to an Achilles tendon tear.
70. Casey Hayward, Green Bay Packers, Cornerback (+)
No rookie defensive player made a bigger impact in 2012 than Green Bay Packers cornerback Casey Hayward.
Although he played as the nickel corner, Hayward's 703 snaps mean he saw action on about two-thirds of the team's defensive plays. He allowed a 44.6 completion percentage and no touchdown passes. Hayward intercepted six balls and his 31.1 passer rating against was the best in the NFL.
In fact, no cornerback has allowed a lower passer rating in at least five years.
In the last nine games of the season, Hayward allowed a total of 121 passing yards. In the two postseason games, he was targeted twice and both passes were incomplete. That's how dominant the second-round pick was in 2012.
69. Jairus Byrd, Buffalo Bills, Safety
Playing for the Buffalo Bills hasn't earned Jairus Byrd any publicity, which is a shame, because he's the third-best safety in the league.
Byrd allowed zero touchdowns and intercepted five passes in 2012, rating as the league's best cover safety. At 26 years old, he is on the verge of becoming a household name among defensive backs.
68. Brian Cushing, Houston Texans, Inside Linebacker
The loss of Brian Cushing to a season-ending knee injury this past season was a devastating blow for the Houston Texans.
In fact, NFL.com writer Adam Schein argues that Cushing is even more important to the Texans than superstar defensive end J.J. Watt. While that may seem a little extreme, there's no denying Cushing's talent.
He can do it all: cover, rush the passer and stop the run. His 23 hurries were the most of any inside linebacker in 2011 and he collected 106 combined tackles.
67. Evan Mathis, Philadelphia Eagles, Left Guard
Evan Mathis's monster 2012 season proved that his 2011 campaign wasn't a fluke. More importantly, it cemented his status as the best guard in the National Football League.
Mathis was rated as the best offensive lineman in the entire league in 2012 and 2011. Moreover, he was rated the sixth-best player in the whole league last year. That's amazing, considering Mathis has been a career journeyman.
He's a tremendous run-blocker and a very good pass-blocker. Give him extra credit for thriving in 2012 despite the other four projected starters on the offensive line making a combined 16 starts all season.
His best performance came against the Cincinnati Bengals in Week 15, when Mathis held stud defensive tackle Geno Atkins to just one hurry and no tackles.
New head coach Chip Kelly has a run-first mentality, meaning Mathis will be even more important to the team's success in 2013. Even though he turns 32 this year, Mathis should have several years as a starter left.
66. Earl Thomas, Seattle Seahawks, Safety (+)
The best safety in the NFC has been dominating since he was drafted in the first round of the 2010 draft. He's the center fielder for the best secondary in the league.
Thomas is just entering his prime and is a stud against the run and the pass. He allowed just a single touchdown while picking off five passes in 2012.
65. Doug Martin, Tampa Bay Buccaneers, Running Back (+)
Doug Martin received absolutely no love in the Offensive Rookie of the Year voting—and deservedly so, considering the incredible rookie seasons of Andrew Luck, Robert Griffin III and Russell Wilson.
However, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers' running back had one of the top rookie campaigns in recent memory.
Martin carried 319 times for 1,454 yards and 11 touchdowns. That's an impressive 4.6 yards per carry, which looks even better due to the fact that Pro Bowl guards Carl Nicks and Davin Joseph made a combined seven starts all year.
Martin is already one of the top backs in the game and should only continue to get better in 2013.
64. Aldon Smith, San Francisco 49ers, Outside Linebacker (+)
I'm not buying the NFL Network's claim that Smith is a top-10—or even top-50—player in the league.
The second-year linebacker turned in a tremendous sophomore season, collecting the 10th-highest single-season sack total in NFL history with 19.5.
With that said, the fact that Smith relies heavily on pressure generated by teammate Justin Smith—one of the league's best 3-4 ends—drops him in the rankings.
He is far from the only teammate in the league who benefits from another productive teammate. But his play down the stretch, with Justin Smith hampered by a serious elbow injury, raised questions about Aldon Smith's productivity on his own.
In San Francisco's final three regular-season games, he collected a combined three tackles and no sacks.
Aldon Smith is one of the best pass-rushing specialists in the NFL and any team would be thrilled to have him. However, he's not even close to the class of J.J. Watt or Von Miller, sack artists who have also proven themselves with tremendous all-around play.
63. LeSean McCoy, Philadelphia Eagles, Running Back
The 2012 season was easily the most disappointing of LeSean McCoy's career, as the 24-year-old tailback missed four games due to injuries, averaged just 4.2 yards per carry, scored only three rushing touchdowns and recorded a career-high four fumbles.
But in a season where everything went wrong for the Eagles, McCoy's struggles can be overlooked. He rushed for 1,309 yards and 17 scores in 2011 and averaged 5.2 yards per carry in 2010.
Expect a major bounce-back season from him in 2013, especially with a head coach that favors the run and a dynamic backup in Bryce Brown.
62. Jason Pierre-Paul, New York Giants, Defensive End
Pierre-Paul was one of the biggest reasons why the Giants won the Super Bowl in 2011, as the former first-round draft pick collected 16.5 sacks and 72 tackles in his second season.
But he regressed heavily in 2012, recording just 6.5 sacks. JPP still produced an impressive 43 quarterback hurries and should rebound to elite form in 2013.
61. Marshal Yanda, Baltimore Ravens, Right Guard
Yanda's omission from the league's official Top 100 Players is nothing short of a joke. The league named Bernard Pollard, Jacoby Jones, Anquan Boldin and Dennis Pitta to the list, none of whom deserved their ranking, but left off the AFC's best guard.
Yanda is one of the biggest reasons for the success of Ray Rice as a top-five running back. He's also an exceptional pass-blocker and played a big role in Joe Flacco's monster postseason.
The former third-round draft pick has earned consecutive Pro Bowl selections and is on the verge of becoming recognized as one of the league's best offensive linemen.
60. Vince Wilfork, New England Patriots, Defensive Tackle
The mammoth nose tackle for the New England Patriots is still going strong heading into his 10th NFL season.
In 2012, Wilfork set career highs in passes defended (six), forced fumbles (three) and fumble recoveries (four). He earned his fourth straight Pro Bowl selection and his first All-Pro honor.
59. Nick Mangold, New York Jets, Center
The former first-round pick is one of the lone bright spots for the New York Jets. He has been rated as the best or second-best center in the NFL in four of the last five seasons, according to Pro Football Focus. That's a pretty impressive streak.
Mangold's strength is run-blocking, which should be key to the development of running back Chris Ivory in 2013.
58. Jason Witten, Dallas Cowboys, Tight End
Jason Witten is as consistent as any player in the league. One of the game's best security blankets, Witten turned in arguably his best season in 2012, catching 110 passes for 1,039 yards and three touchdowns. That's a single-season record for catches by a tight end.
The veteran pass-catcher for the Dallas Cowboys has earned eight trips to the Pro Bowl in the last nine years and has shown no signs of slowing down, even as he approaches his age 31 season.
He's as physical and tough as they come, playing in every game for eight straight seasons. Oh, and not many realize how terrific he is as a run-blocker.
57. Demaryius Thomas, Denver Broncos, Wide Receiver (+)
After two seasons in the NFL, Demaryius Thomas looked like a bust as a former first-round pick. His monster playoff game against the Pittsburgh Steelers (four catches for 204 yards and a touchdown) showed that he had the potential to be one of the game's top receivers.
And as many predicted, he exploded in his third year, largely due to the upgrade from Tim Tebow to Peyton Manning at quarterback. He ranked eighth in receptions (94), fourth in yards (1,434) and seventh in touchdowns (10).
He also led the league in highest passer rating as a receiver, a ridiculous 126.2.
Expect similar production as long as he has a four-time Most Valuable Player throwing the ball to him.
56. Julio Jones, Atlanta Falcons, Wide Receiver (+)
Julio Jones' huge NFC Championship Game performance, in which he caught 11 passes for 182 yards and two touchdowns, is a sign of things to come during his third year in 2013. Already one of the league's best receivers, Jones caught 79 passes for 1,198 yards and 10 scores in 2012.
He's making the Atlanta Falcons look like geniuses for their huge draft-day trade with the Cleveland Browns in 2011, and he'll likely turn into one of the top receivers over the next decade.
However, he's still the second-best receiver on his own team and he's helped out tremendously by a top-seven quarterback and a top-five tight end. He is going to very likely be one of the league's best receivers over the next decade. He's just not quite there yet.
55. Eric Weddle, San Diego Chargers, Safety
Arguably the league's best safety, Eric Weddle followed up his first Pro Bowl selection, in 2011, by rating as the top-ranked safety, per Pro Football Focus.
Weddle collected 97 combined tackles and surrendered just a 54.3 passer rating in 2012. He can do almost anything he wants on a football field, whether it's against the pass or the run.
54. Roddy White, Atlanta Falcons, Wide Receiver
Over the last six seasons, Roddy White has been one of the more consistent producers in the league. You can pencil him in for 90 catches, 1,300 yards and eight touchdowns each year.
White turns 32 this season, but he's still going strong and his career should only be prolonged by the continued development of Julio Jones on the other side of the field.
53. Vincent Jackson, Tampa Bay Buccaneers, Wide Receiver
Vincent Jackson turned in a trio of 1,000-yard seasons with Philip Rivers and the San Diego Chargers, but he became a top-10 receiver in the league during his first season with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.
Jackson caught 72 passes for 1,384 yards, leading the NFL with 19.2 yards per reception. He scored eight touchdowns, including a 95-yarder, the longest pass play of the season.
52. Victor Cruz, New York Giants, Wide Receiver (+)
Cruz's 2011 season is one of the most impressive breakout years in league history. The undrafted wide receiver caught 82 balls for 1,536 yards and nine scores, which included a record-tying 99-yard touchdown.
Cruz's numbers dipped a little in 2012, but he still caught 86 passes for 1,092 yards and 10 touchdowns. The Giants were smart to lock him up to a long-term deal, as he will only get better as he continues to develop his chemistry with Eli Manning.
51. Tony Gonzalez, Atlanta Falcons, Tight End (-)
The ageless wonder turned in arguably his finest season in an Atlanta Falcons uniform in 2012, catching 93 balls for 930 yards and eight touchdowns. He added 14 catches for 129 yards and two scores in a pair of postseason games, the first being the lone playoff victory of his career.
Gonzalez turned 37 this offseason, but he's still expected to be a major contributor on a team that looks primed for another deep postseason run. This is his final season.
50. Chris Myers, Houston Texans, Center
Little-known Chris Myers is unquestionably the best center in the National Football League. He's one of the biggest reasons why the Houston Texans feature such a terrific running game, whether it's Arian Foster or Ben Tate carrying the football.
He ranked as the league's best center in 2011 and ranks as the second-best center over the past two years, according to Pro Football Focus.
Myers, 31, is a two-time Pro Bowler who should have several more years of dominant play remaining in a vastly underrated career.
49. Russell Wilson, Quarterback, Seattle Seahawks (+)
Russell Wilson's rookie season ranks among the best in the history of the NFL. Never before has a quarterback who entered the season as a long shot to become a starter emerged as a superstar in less than a year.
As a rookie, Wilson threw 26 touchdowns and posted a 100.0 passer rating. He averaged 7.9 yards per pass attempt and threw just 10 interceptions. He led four fourth-quarter comebacks, including three in the final minute. And he added 489 rushing yards and five scores on the ground.
But Wilson was also limited to just 393 pass attempts, the fewest by a quarterback playing all 16 games since Michael Vick in 2006. He benefited greatly from a dominant running game and the league's top-ranked scoring defense.
Then again, he proved his worth as a playmaker in the postseason. He led the Seahawks back from a 14-point first-quarter deficit on the road in his first playoff game. And he led a 20-point fourth-quarter comeback on the road against the NFC's top team in the divisional playoffs.
In 2013, Wilson will look to avoid the dreaded sophomore slump. He'll have the luxury of an improved Seahawks team that includes big-play receiver Percy Harvin.
(Why was he ranked below Luck and RGIII? Because the Seahawks began the season trying to hide Wilson in their offense. He also benefited from a tremendous defense. Neither of the other two did.)
48. Arian Foster, Houston Texans, Running Back
Foster has been an absolute workhorse over the last three seasons. He's averaged 319 carries, 1,421 yards and 14 scores per year, not to mention 53 catches for 479 yards and two touchdowns through the air.
Foster's workload has to be cause for concern, however. He's seen his yards-per-carry average drop from 4.9 as a rookie to 4.4 in 2011 to 4.1 in 2012. He also benefits from a terrific offensive line.
With a nagging calf injury that caused him to be placed on the PUP list, Foster could be on the verge of seeing his starting job handed over to Ben Tate.
47. Robert Griffin III, Washington Redskins, Quarterback (+)
Robert Griffin III's 2012 year is one of the all-time great rookie seasons in NFL history.
He tossed 20 touchdowns, led the league in yards per attempt and interception rate and recorded a 102.4 passer rating. He rushed for 815 yards and six scores on a league-leading 6.8 yards-per-attempt average. The football world hasn't given him enough credit for becoming the only player in NFL history to lead the league in both passing yards per attempt and rushing yards per attempt. Talk about versatile.
Oh, and he led the Washington Redskins from a 3-6 record to a 10-6 record and an improbable division title, despite playing the majority of the season without top receiver Pierre Garcon and top tight end Fred Davis.
His ACL tear suffered in the Wild Card Round of the postseason against the Seattle Seahawks could still jeopardize his 2013 campaign (and the rest of his career). But if he returns healthy (let's make the call on whether he is completely healthy after he has played a few games this year) and doesn't suffer a sophomore slump, he has a chance to be a top-five quarterback in the league by the end of 2013.
(Why ranked below Luck? Consider this: When the Redskins defeated Dallas in the season finale to win the division title, RGIII completed nine of 18 passes for 100 yards and a touchdown. Alfred Morris carried 33 times for 200 yards and three touchdowns. Imagine Andrew Luck getting 200 yards in a single game from his running back. Never.)
46. Calais Campbell, Arizona Cardinals, Defensive End
Campbell's success has nothing to do with sacks, because, frankly, he doesn't collect that many. He's recorded just 27.5 over the past four seasons, an average of about seven per year.
For Campbell, his value is as an all-around defender. He's one of the best 3-4 ends at pressuring the quarterback and he really improved as a run-stuffer in 2012. He also batted six passes.
In consecutive games in Weeks 15 and 16, he recorded a total of 13 tackles, six hurries, two sacks and two batted passes.
Just 26 years old, Campbell has rated as a top-three 3-4 defensive end in each of the past two seasons, per Pro Football Focus.
45. Andrew Luck, Indianapolis Colts, Quarterback (+)
Robert Griffin III, Russell Wilson and Colin Kaepernick were the hotshot young quarterbacks who took the NFL by surprise during the 2012 season. But Andrew Luck is unquestionably the best of the four.
His numbers as a passer won't impress anyone. He did throw for 4,374 yards and 23 touchdowns, but his 54.1 completion percentage, 18 interceptions and 76.5 passer rating were all significantly below average.
But it's not about the raw numbers with Luck. What he did with a limited supporting cast is nothing short of amazing. Luck took a two-win Colts team to an 11-5 record. His 0.28 WPA/game was the fourth-best mark of any quarterback last year, behind just Aaron Rodgers, Matt Ryan and Tom Brady (and ahead of Peyton Manning, Drew Brees and every other rookie quarterback!).
He had a subpar running game, a pair of rookies at both receiver and tight end, arguably a bottom-three offensive line and a dismal defense. In fact, the Colts were outscored by 30 points on the season, making their 11 wins even more impressive.
When it mattered most, Luck came through. He produced seven game-winning drives, including a walkoff touchdown to beat the Detroit Lions. Unlike RGIII and Russell Wilson, Luck had absolutely no handicaps from Week 1.
He had the second-most dropbacks in the league. He threw deep on 27 percent of his passes, the third-highest mark in the league, which shows that he wasn't afraid to attempt any throw. And he overcame 50 dropped passes from his receivers, the most of any quarterback in the last five years, according to Pro Football Focus.
He quietly added 255 yards and five scores on the ground, proving his worth as one of the more versatile quarterbacks in the league.
Luck has all the potential in the world. His poise and composure in the pocket, dominant arm and extremely intelligent football mind make him a prime MVP candidate in 2013. Don't be surprised if the overachieving Colts take a step back in 2013, based on win-loss record. But if they do, it won't be their quarterback's fault.
Luck is on their side for the next 10-15 years. This guy will be one of the all-time greats, if not the all-time great. Book it.
44. Tony Romo, Dallas Cowboys, Quarterback
Tony Romo is not the reason why the Dallas Cowboys are not reaching the postseason. Put this guy on the Atlanta Falcons with Julio Jones, Roddy White and Tony Gonzalez, and they still would have reached the NFC Championship Game.
Romo is as consistent as any quarterback in the game. He did tie for the league lead with 19 interceptions last year, but he also threw for 4,903 yards and 28 touchdowns while posting a passer rating above 90 for the seventh straight season.
His interception to lose the season finale against the Washington Redskins is what history will remember, but it's worth noting that he also led the league with five fourth-quarter comeback victories.
Romo has a 55-38 career record. He ranks fifth in NFL history in passer rating and sixth in yards per attempt and completion percentage. And he has the best fourth-quarter passer rating since he entered the league in 2006.
Did the Cowboys overpay Romo this offseason? Probably. But he's also a 33-year-old gunslinger who has just seven years of actual playing time under his belt. He should be able to give the Cowboys four or five more seasons of productive play. He's a Super Bowl victory away from becoming an elite quarterback.
43. Marshawn Lynch, Seattle Seahawks, Running Back
It's been a pretty spectacular career revival for Lynch in Seattle.
The former first-round pick turned in the best season of his career in 2012, carrying 315 times for 1,590 yards and 11 touchdowns. His 5.0 yards per carry ranked fourth in the league among running backs.
42. Haloti Ngata, Baltimore Ravens, Defensive Tackle
The former first-round draft pick is more than just a massive body in the middle of the defensive line. He's exceptional against the run and solid as a pass-rusher. Ngata has recorded 16 sacks over the past three seasons.
With the departure of Ray Lewis and Ed Reed from the Ravens, Ngata is one of the top two leaders on the defense, along with Terrell Suggs.
41. Joe Flacco, Baltimore Ravens, Quarterback (+)
I'm not buying the hype for Joe Flacco as an elite quarterback. Not even remotely close.
His 2012 postseason run was probably the second best by a quarterback in league history, trailing only Joe Montana in 1989. Flacco tossed 11 touchdowns against no interceptions during the four games. He outdueled Andrew Luck, Peyton Manning, Tom Brady and Colin Kaepernick in consecutive games.
But in the regular season, Flacco has been just ordinary. He's remarkably consistent each year of his career, but he hasn't proven that he can carry a team for a full season, like other great quarterbacks. He has zero All-Pro or Pro Bowl selections and he's always benefited from a strong running game and a great defense.
Flacco's monster contract this past offseason increases the pressure on him this year more than ever. He's an average regular-season quarterback who is now being paid to perform consistently like he did in the 2012 postseason.
The world waits to see how the Super Bowl MVP will respond.
40. Joe Staley, San Francisco 49ers, Left Tackle
Joe Staley is the best offensive lineman on the best offensive line in the league. In fact, Pro Football Focus rated him as the NFL's best offensive tackle in 2012.
Staley is a devastating run-blocker who should be able to help the 49ers effectively transition from the Frank Gore era to one that consists of Marcus Lattimore, Kendall Hunter or LaMichael James.
39. Ndamukong Suh, Detroit Lions, Defensive Tackle
Suh has all the potential in the world. He just hasn't shown it all since his monster rookie season, when he collected 10 sacks and wreaked havoc on opposing offenses throughout the league.
In 2012, Suh recorded eight sacks, rating as the second-best pass-rushing defensive tackle in the league, per Pro Football Focus. He should continue to improve after the Lions spent their third first-round pick in the last four seasons on a defensive lineman.
38. Lardarius Webb, Baltimore Ravens, Cornerback (+)
Lardarius Webb was well on his way emerging as a top cornerback in 2012 before suffering a season-ending ACL tear in Week 6. In limited action, he allowed a 42.2 passer rating.
In 2011, Webb allowed no touchdowns and intercepted five passes. His 55.6 passer rating was the eighth-best mark in the NFL.
The Ravens have had a dramatic change to their roster for the 2013 season, but the return of a healthy Webb is the biggest reason for optimism for their defense.
37. CJ Spiller, Buffalo Bills, Running Back (+)
The former top-10 draft pick finally proved his worth as an elite running back with a monster 2012 season.
Spiller carried just 207 times (for some reason), but he managed to rush for 1,244 yards on a ridiculous 6.0 yards-per-carry average. He recorded 53 missed tackles, just over one per four carries, the top mark in the NFL.
He will enter the 2013 season as the starter for the first time in his career. Another big year will help take the pressure off rookie first-round pick EJ Manuel.
36. Jason Peters, Philadelphia Eagles, Left Tackle
Jason Peters lost his spot as the top left tackle in the NFL after he missed the entire 2012 season with a torn Achilles tendon.
The 31-year-old is expected to rebound during the 2013 season. He says he's completely healthy and is expected to duplicate his dominant 2011 season, which earned him his fifth Pro Bowl bid and first All-Pro selection.
Whether it's pass-blocking for either Vick, Foles or Barkley in 2013, or run-blocking for McCoy and Brown, the Eagles expect Peters to get the job done.
35. Dez Bryant, Dallas Cowboys, Wide Receiver (+)
The former first-round pick elevated his game to near-elite status with 92 catches for 1,382 yards and 12 touchdowns. With the monster season, he completely erased any worries about the disappointing first couple of seasons to his career.
In the season's final eight games, he recorded 879 yards and scored 11 touchdowns. It's scary to think how dominant Bryant could be during the 2013 season.
He and Tony Romo have the potential to be the single best quarterback-to-receiver duo in the National Football League.
34. Ryan Clady, Denver Broncos, Offensive Tackle
Ryan Clady hasn't missed a game during his five seasons in the league. He's earned three Pro Bowl selections and a pair of All-Pro bids.
Clady's job got a lot easier in 2012, when the former first-round pick allowed just a single sack all season. Blocking for Peyton Manning will potentially help him earn more publicity as one of the top offensive tackles in the National Football League.
33. Jimmy Graham, New Orleans Saints, Tight End
Other than Calvin Johnson, Jimmy Graham might be the single biggest matchup nightmare in the league. He's a 6'7" tight end with blazing speed. It really doesn't get more difficult for opposing defenses.
Graham had a down year, by his standards, in 2012, but he still managed to catch 85 passes for 982 yards and nine touchdowns. Just like Drew Brees, he was likely hurt by the loss of head coach Sean Payton, one of the game's best signal-callers.
Graham is poised for a major season in 2013. Expect him to duplicate his monster 2011 year, when he caught 99 balls for 1,310 yards and 11 touchdowns. He turns 28 this season, but he's only been in the league for three seasons and may not even have reached his prime yet.
32. Patrick Peterson, Arizona Cardinals, Cornerback (+)
Peterson looks like he could be well on his way to becoming the next Deion Sanders. That's no exaggeration, either. Both were selected with the fifth overall pick in the draft and through two seasons, Peterson has demonstrated his ability as both a return man and a shutdown corner.
As a rookie, he was just a league-average cover corner, but he collected a single-season record four punt returns as a returner. In his second season, he was just a league-average returner, but he collected seven interceptions and held opposing receivers to a 64.8 passer rating.
The most important player on the Cardinals defense, Peterson looks to have unlimited potential. He'll have his hands full against the NFC West's young quarterback trio of Russell Wilson, Colin Kaepernick and Sam Bradford.
31. Ray Rice, Baltimore Ravens, Running Back
One of the league's more durable backs, Ray Rice has played in every game over the past four seasons. He's a lock for 1,200 rushing yards and 4.5 yards per carry, plus 70 catches and 600 yards on the ground.
A three-time Pro Bowler, Rice is almost as important to the Ravens as Joe Flacco. If he can duplicate the last four years, he'll have a legitimate chance at the Hall of Fame.
30. Larry Fitzgerald, Arizona Cardinals, Wide Receiver
Ignore Larry Fitzgerald's stats during the 2012 season. It's impossible for even one of the league's best receivers to accomplish anything with the likes of Kevin Kolb, Ryan Lindley, Brian Hoyer and John Skelton throwing passes.
Fitz caught 71 passes for 798 yards and four scores, numbers that would make him a decent No. 1 receiver on a number of teams. But since he was targeted 148 times, just 48 percent of passes thrown his way were completed. Twelve of the incompletions turned into interceptions, the most in the league to an intended receiver.
Expect him to fully rebound to his usual 90-catch, 1,300-yard, 10-touchdown status in 2013, as the Cardinals have brought in veteran Carson Palmer, the team's best quarterback since Kurt Warner retired after 2009.
29. Matt Ryan, Atlanta Falcons, Quarterback (+)
Matt Ryan turned in the best season of his career in 2012, throwing for 4,719 yards and 32 touchdowns. He led the league in completion percentage (68.7 percent) and ranked fourth in QBR (74.5).
He led Atlanta to the best record in the NFC for the second time in three seasons and this time, he won a playoff game, leading a memorable last-second drive to stun the Seattle Seahawks in the divisional round. He recorded a 114.8 passer rating against the San Francisco 49ers in the NFC Championship Game, but he couldn't lead Atlanta to any points in the second half.
Ryan is one of the best regular-season quarterbacks in the game, although he does benefit from two Pro Bowl-caliber receivers and the most dominant tight end in NFL history.
But he needs to turn in at least one memorable postseason stretch to establish himself as one of the game's elite quarterbacks.
28. Clay Matthews, Green Bay Packers, Outside Linebacker
Clay Matthews has fallen under the radar in recent years with the recent development of the 2011 sack kings (JJ Watt, Von Miller and Aldon Smith), but the Green Bay Packers outside linebacker is still one of the best in the game.
Matthews has earned a Pro Bowl selection in all four years in the league. He collected 13 sacks in 2012, despite playing in just 12 games. He allowed just 47 yards passing.
He's rated as a top-six outside linebacker all four years, according to Pro Football Focus. Only 27 years old, Matthews is in the prime of his career.
27. NaVorro Bowman, San Francisco 49ers, Inside Linebacker (+)
Bowman tops the list of up-and-coming young linebackers in this league. He's one of the best in the game and he's only getting better. In fact, some analysts have rated Bowman as the best linebacker on the 49ers, ahead even of Patrick Willis.
Bowman has averaged 112.5 tackles over the past two seasons. He's a two-time All-Pro who is terrific against the run and solid against the pass (71.7 passer rating allowed in 2012).
26. Charles Tillman, Chicago Bears, Cornerback
At 31 years old, Tillman turned in arguably his finest season. He forced a ridiculous 10 fumbles and returned all three of his interceptions for touchdowns.
Tillman also collected 76 tackles, missing just four, for a 95 percent success rate. And he allowed a 77.7 opponents' passer rating, including just 9.4 yards per completion. His remarkable season helped enable teammate Tim Jennings to grab nine interceptions.
25. Rob Gronkowski, New England Patriots, Tight End
Rob Gronkowski is the best tight end in the game. There's almost no denying that.
In 2012, the Patriots superstar missed five games due to injuries but still caught 55 balls for 790 yards and 11 scores. He's a top-five red-zone threat in the game and his presence gives Tom Brady his first legitimate receiving threat since Randy Moss.
Gronk's only weakness is his health. He suffered a sprained ankle in the 2011 AFC Championship Game against the Baltimore Ravens, an injury that may have prevented the Patriots from winning the Super Bowl. He broke his forearm in 2012, missed five games and then broke it again in the divisional playoffs. Once again, his injury may have cost the Patriots a Super Bowl title.
This offseason, Gronk has already had a reported five surgeries: four on his forearm and one on his back. If he can't stay healthy in 2013, he'll likely be dethroned by Jimmy Graham as the top tight end.
24. Brandon Marshall, Chicago Bears, Wide Receiver
Marshall has become one of the most consistent, under-the-radar producers in the league. He was nothing short of sensational in his first season with the Chicago Bears, despite being targeted on a higher percentage of passes than any receiver in the league (about 41 percent).
Marshall caught 118 passes for 1,508 yards and 11 scores. Only three players in NFL history have topped all three of those numbers in the same season (Jerry Rice, Herman Moore and Isaac Bruce each did it in 1995).
Oh, and this offseason he said that he's 100 percent healthy for the first time in three seasons. Look out, world.
23. Jared Allen, Minnesota Vikings, Defensive End (-)
The Minnesota Vikings defensive end is among the best at his position in the game, yet he still doesn't receive quite the credit he deserves.
That's a shame because Jared Allen has recorded double-digit sack totals for six straight seasons, reaching a high of 22 in 2011 (the second most in history). His 12 sacks in 2012 ranked eighth in the league, helping him earn his fifth Pro Bowl appearance.
Allen, now 31 years old, could be on the decline in his career, but the Vikings hope that the addition of first-round defensive tackle Sharrif Floyd can help extend Allen's career for a few more seasons.
22. Eli Manning, New York Giants, Quarterback
Eli Manning is one of the more consistent quarterbacks in the league. He's very, very good, but he's not elite.
When Eli is on, he's unbeatable. He's one of the most clutch quarterbacks in the game, and I'd take just two or three quarterbacks over him in a late-game two-minute drive opportunity. He has never missed a start, he's a near-lock for 4,000 yards and 25 touchdown passes and, of course, he has won two Super Bowls in absolutely incredible fashion.
But he has never received a single MVP vote and he has just two Pro Bowl selections. He has led the New York Giants to at least eight wins in all eight full seasons of his career, but he has only won a playoff game in two of those seasons. They ended as champions both times, but it would help Eli's cause if he could consistently lead his team into the postseason each year.
By this point in his career, fans know what they're getting from Manning each season. It's just a matter of whether the Giants will collapse at the end of the season or go on a surprise Super Bowl run.
The continued development of Hakeem Nicks and Victor Cruz should help Manning as he reaches his mid-30s.
21. Jamaal Charles, Kansas City Chiefs, Running Back
The most underrated running back in the league, Charles does nothing but amass ridiculous yards-per-carry averages each season. He should universally be accepted as the second-best back in the game, just as Adrian Peterson is unanimously considered No. 1.
Last year was just a typical Jamaal Charles season. He rushed for 1,509 yards on 5.3 yards per rush, which actually tied his lowest single-season average. His 5.9 career yards per carry is miles ahead of any other running back in history.
New head coach Andy Reid has a reputation as a pass-heavy coach, but he's also coaxed impressive seasons out of Brian Westbrook and LeSean McCoy, both similar running backs to Charles. Veteran quarterback Alex Smith, the best QB the Chiefs have had in a decade, should also help.
20. DeMarcus Ware, Dallas Cowboys, Defensive End
DeMarcus Ware has been overshadowed in recent years by the league's young pass-rushers, but the 30-year-old is still one of the best in the game at collecting sacks.
He's recorded 111 sacks over his career, which includes seven straight seasons of at least 11. The seven-time Pro Bowler is quietly putting together a pretty convincing case for the Hall of Fame.
It will be interesting to see how he does in 2013 after the Cowboys switched from a 3-4 to a 4-3 defense.
19. Duane Brown, Houston Texans, Left Tackle
Duane Brown has quietly emerged as the second-best offensive lineman in the National Football League, a player who's probably more important to the Houston Texans than running back Arian Foster. Whether it's protecting Matt Schaub or blocking for Arian Foster, Brown gets the job done, game after game.
Brown, 27, has helped Foster rush for an average of more than 1,400 yards in each of the past three seasons. The 2012 season saw the arrival of his first of hopefully many Pro Bowl selections.
18. AJ Green, Cincinnati Bengals, Wide Receiver (+)
The Bengals are getting everything they hoped for when they selected AJ Green with the fourth overall pick in the 2011 draft. Green followed up a Pro Bowl rookie season with one of the top receiving performances of the league. He caught 97 passes for 1,350 yards and 11 touchdowns. All three marks were among the top 10 in the league.
Through two seasons, only Marques Colston caught more passes than Green's 162. He's also sixth in receiving yards through a player's first two seasons.
Green has unlimited potential. He could develop into a top-three receiver in the league by the end of 2013. His development will only be helped by the addition of first-round receiver Tyler Eifert.
17. Ben Roethlisberger, Pittsburgh Steelers, Quarterback
Ben Roethlisberger really flew under the radar in 2012, largely because of the Pittsburgh Steelers' struggles.
He threw 26 touchdowns against just eight interceptions and his 97.0 passer rating ranked seventh in the league. But he missed three games with a serious rib injury, possibly costing the Steelers a postseason berth. He has struggled with injuries in recent years, missing at least one game in eight of his nine years. First-round draft pick David DeCastro should do wonders in protecting the Steelers quarterback in 2012.
Roethlisberger is a remarkably consistent quarterback who excels in the clutch and has a knack for postseason heroics. He has won two Super Bowls and played in a third. He's never been a top-three quarterback in the game, but with a few more solid seasons, he'll lock up a Hall of Fame berth.
16. Justin Smith, San Francisco 49ers, Defensive End (-)
Justin, not Aldon, is the most valuable Smith on the vaunted San Francisco 49ers defense. The entire football world saw how limited the 49ers pass rush was late in the 2012 season when Smith was hampered by an elbow injury.
The 3-4 defensive end won't "wow" anyone with his sack totals. He's never collected 10 in a season, averaging 6.4 during his five years with the 'Niners. But he's tremendous at opening up holes for the linebackers. He's the biggest reason why Aldon Smith was able to challenge the single-season sack record last year.
He's also a monster against the run, helping the 49ers rank third in the league in rushing yards per attempt as a defense. The fourth overall pick in the 2001 draft is still going strong heading into his 13th season. Despite his low career sack total, you've got to wonder if the Hall will come calling if he continues to produce for another two or three seasons.
15. Patrick Willis, San Francisco 49ers, Inside Linebacker
Quite simply, Patrick Willis is the most consistent defensive player in the game. He's not flashy like Richard Sherman or a playmaker like JJ Watt. He just quietly gets the job done, game after game, year after year.
Last year, Willis collected 93 tackles and allowed just a 71.2 passer rating. He rated as the best inside linebacker in the NFL, according to Pro Football Focus. In fact, he rated second against the run and first against the pass. He can do anything on a football field, which makes life so much easier for the team’s other great linebackers.
14. Andre Johnson, Houston Texans, Wide Receiver
Consider Andre Johnson one of the very few No. 1 receivers in the NFL who is even more important to his team than his quarterback. The former top-three overall draft pick caught 112 passes for 1,598 yards and four scores in 2012 despite playing without a legitimate No. 2 receiving threat.
The Texans appear to have finally brought in a talented receiver opposite Johnson, as they selected DeAndre Hopkins with their first-round pick. This should only help Johnson, who's now on his age-32 season.
13. Cameron Wake, Miami Dolphins, Defensive End
The former CFL superstar has emerged as one of the league's best, and most underrated, pass-rushers over the past few seasons.
In 2012, Wake collected 15 sacks and forced three fumbles. His 86 disruptions led the NFL, per Pro Football Focus, as did his pass-rushing productivity, among 4-3 defensive ends. He is an unstoppable force as a blitzer and against the run.
He rated as the fourth-best player in the entire NFL last year, according to Pro-Football-Refernece. The best player on one of the league's better defensive lines, Wake should only continue to get better, even as he climbs past age 30.
12. Joe Thomas, Cleveland Browns, Left Tackle
The former top-three pick has been an absolute model of consistency since he joined the Cleveland Browns in 2007.
In six seasons, he's earned six Pro Bowl selections and three All-Pro bids. He's ranked as a top-eight offensive tackle in the league in each year since Pro Football Focus was created in 2008. In 2012, he allowed a league-low 16 quarterback pressures.
Thomas has never missed a game in his career. He is expected to be a major contributor in the development of running back Trent Richardson, a player many are picking to be among the league's rushing leaders in 2013.
By the way, you've got to feel sorry for a guy like Thomas. These are the quarterbacks he's blocked for throughout his career: Derek Anderson, Charlie Frye, Brady Quinn, Ken Dorsey, Bruce Gradkowski, Colt McCoy, Jake Delhomme, Seneca Wallace, Thaddeus Lewis and Brandon Weeden. He's played for five straight teams that have won five or fewer games. He's never been to the playoffs.
Put Thomas with the Patriots or Packers and he would be a household name.
11. Richard Sherman, Seattle Seahawks, Cornerback (+)
Richard Sherman talks the talk and he walks the walk. The Seattle Seahawks' young cornerback is quickly becoming one of the most despised players in the league, but he continues to back up his talking with stellar play on the field.
In 2012, Sherman was easily the best cornerback in the league. He allowed just two touchdowns and intercepted eight passes. He finished seventh in completion percentage (47.1 percent) and third in passer rating (41.1). Sherman feasted on subpar competition. Against the likes of Arizona (two games), St. Louis (two games), Minnesota and the Jets, he allowed just 10 completions while intercepting six passes. That's about as dominant as it gets.
He is the most valuable player on arguably the most impressive roster in the league. The addition of veteran Antoine Winfield to the Seahawks' defensive backfield should only help Sherman's continued development.
10. Geno Atkins, Cincinnati Bengals, Defensive Tackle (+)
Last season, Geno Atkins emerged as the best defensive tackle, and possibly the most underrated player, in the National Football League.
Atkins turned in an absolute monster season for the Cincinnati Bengals. He collected 54 combined tackles and four forced fumbles. He tallied 12.5 sacks and 49 quarterback hurries. He was the best player on one of the more underappreciated teams in the league.
In fact, Atkins rated as the third-best player in the NFL, according to Pro Football Focus, and the fourth-best player, according to Pro-Football-Reference. At just 25, and surrounded by talent and depth on the defensive line, Atkins will be a force to be reckoned with for many years.
9. Darrelle Revis, Tampa Bay Buccaneers, Cornerback
Forget about the fact that Darrelle Revis missed almost all of the 2012 season with a torn ACL. He's still unquestionably the best cornerback in the game, although Richard Sherman is currently a challenger to the throne. (I'm basing this ranking on my prediction that Revis returns to dominant form. If he doesn't, his 2014 ranking will obviously drop.)
In just five games pre-injury last year, Revis allowed a 6.3 passer rating. In 2011, Revis surrendered a 45.6 passer rating, which includes four interceptions and 16 passes defensed. This is a cornerback who is so good that he'll go full games without a single pass thrown in his direction.
In 2013, Revis will join a Tampa Bay Buccaneers squad that features one of the best secondaries in the game. That will only help him in his first year in the NFC.
8. Von Miller, Denver Broncos, Outside Linebacker (+)
The game's premiere 4-3 linebacker, Miller is in the discussion with Geno Atkins and Darrelle Revis as the game's second-best defensive player. He followed up a Defensive Rookie of the Year selection with an 18.5-sack performance that earned him a second-place finish in the Defensive Player of the Year voting.
Miller is an absolute monster against the run and as a pass-rusher. His 39 total defeats last year were the most by a linebacker in nine years. Pro Football Focus rated him as the fourth-best player in the league in 2012.
At just 24, Miller will be the focal point of the Broncos' defense for many, many years. (His potential suspension for PEDs has no impact on his ranking.)
7. J.J. Watt, Houston Texans, Defensive End (+)
J.J. Watt is the best defensive player in the National Football League. Easily.
The reigning Defensive Player of the Year winner turned in arguably the greatest defensive season in league history in 2012, collecting 20.5 sacks, 16 pass deflections, four forced fumbles and 69 tackles. His 105.6 rating last year, per Pro Football Focus, is easily the highest in the site's five-year history.
Watt is as unblockable as any defensive lineman since Reggie White. He is the focus of every offensive coordinator's game plan and has a chance to become one of the all-time greats. One can only imagine what type of sack totals he would produce if he was a 4-3 defensive end instead of a 3-4. There is nothing this player cannot do.
With the looming suspension for Von Miller, Watt has to be considered the early favorite to win his second straight Defensive Player of the Year award.
6. Calvin Johnson, Detroit Lions, Wide Receiver
Calvin Johnson has a chance to become the second-most prolific receiver in history, behind Jerry Rice. He's as physically unstoppable as anyone who's ever played the position and at just 27 years old, the former top-three draft pick has many years of top production left.
Last season, Johnson caught 122 passes for 1,964 yards and five scores. The receptions led the NFL. The yardage broke the single-season record. And the touchdowns would have reached double digits had he not been tackled on the one-yard line six times.
Throw in the fact that the Lions' second, third and fourth receivers combined for fewer than 1,000 yards, and you could make a case for his 2012 campaign as the best by a receiver since Don Hutson in 1942.
5. Adrian Peterson, Minnesota Vikings, Running Back
All things considered, Adrian Peterson's 2012 season was probably the greatest by a running back in the history of the National Football League.
Fresh off a torn ACL suffered in December 2011, Peterson played all 16 games. He rushed 335 times for 2,097 yards, the second-highest single-season total in history. He averaged 6.0 yards per attempt. He scored 12 touchdowns.
Opposing defenses frequently placed eight or nine men in the box against Peterson and they still couldn't stop him. In the final 10 regular-season games, Peterson averaged 159.8 rushing yards per game. He carried a team that had one of the league's worst starting quarterbacks. That's amazing.
He became the first running back to win the MVP since LaDainian Tomlinson in 2006. The feat is doubly impressive considering the high-powered passing attack of the current generation, which has led to the devaluing of the running back position.
4. Drew Brees, New Orleans Saints, Quarterback
No quarterback in the game puts up passing totals like Drew Brees. The Saints passer has averaged 4,796 yards and 35 touchdowns over the last six years, including a ridiculous 2011 campaign that saw him throw for a single-season record 5,476 passing yards to go with 46 touchdown tosses.
He had a down year, by his standards, in 2012, which can largely be attributed to the loss of head coach Sean Payton for the entire season. Brees still managed to throw for 5,177 yards and 43 touchdowns, but he led the league with 19 interceptions and posted his lowest completion percentage (63.0) in nine years.
Expect a major bounce-back season in 2013 as Payton returns to the sidelines for New Orleans. Brees is still unquestionably the No. 4 quarterback in the game. The gap between him and the big three quarterbacks is not nearly as significant as it is between him and the fifth quarterback.
3. Peyton Manning, Denver Broncos, Quarterback
In a normal season, Peyton Manning's 2012 campaign would have been enough to win his fifth Most Valuable Player award. As it turned out, he still collected his sixth First-Team All-Pro season.
After missing the entire 2011 season due to multiple neck surgeries, Manning returned to elite form with the Denver Broncos in 2012. All he did was throw for 4,659 yards and 37 touchdowns, lead the league in completion percentage and net yards per pass attempt and post a 105.8 passer rating.
The playoff loss to the eventual Super Bowl champion Baltimore Ravens was a classic Peyton Manning postseason game. He had the Broncos up by a touchdown in the final minute before safety Rahim Moore allowed a long touchdown pass to tie game. Not Peyton's fault. But he couldn't lead the Broncos to a single score in the first overtime period and he tossed a game-losing interception early in the second extra session. Peyton's fault.
Regardless, the 37-year-old signal-caller is one of four quarterbacks in the NFL who could take over any team in the league and instantly make it a Super Bowl contender. That's no exaggeration, either. Put Manning on the Jacksonville Jaguars or Arizona Cardinals and they'd instantly be division favorites, possibly conference favorites.
2. Aaron Rodgers, Green Bay Packers, Quarterback
Over the past two seasons, Aaron Rodgers' numbers literally look like something out of a video game. He's thrown 84 touchdowns and 14 interceptions. He's averaged 8.5 yards per pass attempt. And he has posted a 114.9 passer rating.
Casual fans think he had a down year in 2012, but all he did was follow up arguably the greatest season by a quarterback in modern history with a top-20 quarterback season. He's the all-time leader in passer rating, adjusted yards per pass attempt and interception percentage, and he's second in completion percentage.
The addition of rookie running backs Eddie Lacy and Jonathan Franklin should give the Packers a legitimate running game for the first time since 2009. That will only help take just a little bit of pressure off Rodgers. Then again, he's shown that he can succeed with a non-existent running game.
Rodgers has gotten an unfair rap for his consecutive divisional round postseason exits, as he's still managed to lead the Packers to 25.5 points per game in the losses. The former Super Bowl MVP is primed for a big postseason run in 2013.
1. Tom Brady, New England Patriots, Quarterback
Even as he approaches his age-36 season, Tom Brady is (just barely) the best player in the National Football League.
Last year didn't garner much publicity for the Patriots quarterback. That's because it was just a typical Brady season (and rookie quarterbacks were taking the NFL by storm, as well as second-year sack artists).
Brady threw for 4,827 yards and 34 touchdowns, led the league in interception percentage and helped the Patriots score 557 points, the third-highest single-season total in NFL history.
The Patriots quarterback hasn't lived up to expectations in the postseason recently, but neither have any of the other three elite quarterbacks in the game. He remains the most recent of the bunch to take his team to the Super Bowl and his 11.32 wins above average over the past two seasons is the most of any quarterback in the game.