Ultimate Ranking: The 100 Best Players in the National Football League

Bryn SwartzSenior Writer IIIJuly 6, 2014

Ultimate Ranking: The 100 Best Players in the National Football League

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    Paul Sancya/Associated Press

    By this point, we've all seen the NFL's official top 100 players list, and, of course, we all have our fair share of issues with the list. Whether it's a bias toward the defending Super Bowl champion or a tendency to overrate players based on past production, the list was far from perfect. 

    So I made my own list, just like I did last year

    For my list, I made a point of rating players based on a combination of their 2013 season and the couple of seasons before. I mostly looked for trends. 

    When a dominant running back like Arian Foster struggles through an injury-plagued 2013 season, he still receives the benefit of the doubt in my rankings. After all, he was one of the best backs in the game from 2010 to 2012. The 2013 season was the anomaly, not the norm.

    I didn't base my rankings off of projections. I think Jadeveon Clowney is going to be a stud in 2014 and beyond, but he can't make my top 100 when he hasn't played a down in the NFL. The same applies for a player like Chance Warmack, a first-round draft pick in 2013 who struggled as a rookie but will likely be a stud sooner rather than later. 

    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. Position matters. 

    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 continue to improve (example: Andrew Luck) and a (-) if a player is still productive but his best years are definitely past him (example: Justin Smith).

    The players are ranked as follows. Following each player, I have included last year's ranking in parentheses. 

Players 100-91

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    Bill Kostroun/Associated Press

    100. Anquan Boldin, WR, San Francisco 49ers (NR)

    It's hard to believe that Jim Harbaugh acquired Anquan Boldin from his brother John for just a sixth-round draft pick. Considered all but washed up when he left the Super Bowl champion Baltimore Ravens following the 2012 season, Boldin successfully revived his career with the Niners in 2013.

    Last season, Boldin finished with the third-highest individual passer rating for a receiver, catching 85 passes for 1179 yards and seven touchdowns. He's also one of the best third-down receivers in the sport, even though he's not particularly big or fast.

     

    99. Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie, CB, New York Giants (NR)

    Could you find a player with a more inconsistent career? DRC has all the talent in the world—it's just a matter of when he chooses to show it. He was a stud in 2008 and 2009, a disaster in 2010, 2011 and 2012 and a stud in 2013. That's why he's on to his fourth team in just six seasons.

    If the Giants receive last year's DRC, they'll have one of the best cornerbacks in the National Football League and a bargain in free agency. After all, he allowed a ridiculous 44.1 completion percentage, the second-best mark in the game.

     

    98. Cameron Jordan, DE, New Orleans Saints (+) (NR)

    From struggling rookie in 2011 to solid starter in 2012 to Pro Bowler in 2013, Cameron Jordan is quickly becoming one of the league's top 3-4 defensive ends.

    He recorded 12.5 sacks in Rob Ryan's defense—the fifth-highest total in the NFL—plus a pair of forced fumbles and fumble recoveries.

    He's the most important player on one of the league's most underrated defenses. Expect him to become a household name in 2014.

     

    97. Jerod Mayo, LB, New England Patriots (NR)

    One of the league's most consistent linebackers, Jerod Mayo suffered the first major injury of his career in 2013 when he tore his pectoral muscle midseason.

    The Defensive Rookie of the Year in 2008, Mayo earned a Pro Bowl selection in 2010 and 2012 and is regularly among the league leaders in tackles.

     

    96. Desmond Trufant, CB, Atlanta Falcons (+) (NR)

    It's pretty incredible for a rookie cornerback to make the top 100 list, as it's a position that usually takes a player two or three years to reach their peak.

    Trufant didn't receive any publicity for his 2013 season, but he led the league with 15 pass breakups and collected two interceptions. The lone bright spot on the Falcons' defense in 2013, Trufant was also named Pro Football Focus's Defensive Rookie of the Year.

     

    95. Brandon Mebane, DT, Seattle Seahawks (NR)

    How is it possible for a defensive player on the Seattle Seahawks to be underrated, perhaps even vastly underrated?

    While the Legion of Boom steals all the headlines in Seattle, Brandon Mebane is the team's best player on the front seven. A seven-year starter, Mebane turned in his best year in 2013, rating as the third-best defensive tackle in the NFL, per Pro Football Focus.

     

    94. Star Lotulelei, DT, Carolina Panthers (NR)

    A rare heart condition caused Star Lotulelei to fall from a potential top-five pick to the 14th overall selection in the 2013 draft. Lotulelei fell right into the lap of the Carolina Panthers, where the massive defensive tackle quickly emerged as one of the top rookies in the game.

    In 2013, Lotulelei helped transform a struggling Panthers defense into one of the best in the game. He is solid as a pass-rusher but his real strength is as a run-stopper, where his 12.9 run-stop percentage ranked second in the league. The Panthers allowed just 4.0 yards per carry and four rushing touchdowns all season.

     

    93. Louis Vasquez, OG, Denver Broncos (NR)

    The Denver Broncos scored 481 points in 2012. They scored 606 points in 2013. What was the difference between the two teams?

    Obviously, it was right guard Louis Vasquez, signed by the Broncos in free agency.

    All joking aside, Vasquez went from a reliable guard while blocking for Philip Rivers to a Pro Bowl player while protecting Peyton Manning.

    The third-highest ranked guard by Pro Football Focus's 2013 metrics, Vasquez surrendered no sacks and just two quarterback hits in 16 games. No offensive lineman in the entire NFL graded higher at both run and pass blocking.

     

    92. Kam Chancellor, SS, Seattle Seahawks (+) (NR)

    Kam Chancellor became a household name during the Seahawks' dominant postseason run, especially during the Super Bowl when he helped completely shut down the Broncos' historic passing attack. He allowed six completions for just 27 yards in the Super Bowl, also intercepting a pass.

    Regular season and postseason combined, Chancellor allowed a 63.6 passer rating. He allowed just a single touchdown and collected five interceptions. 

    Throw in Chancellor's propensity for hard hitting and it's easy to see why the Seahawks safety is quickly becoming one of the NFL's best defensive backs.

     

    91. Damon Harrison, DT, New York Jets (+) (NR)

    Underrated yes? Criminally underrated? Absolutely.

    Damon Harrison is one of the best defensive linemen in the league, yet most serious football fans probably don't even know the name.

    An undrafted free agent who signed with the Jets before the 2012 season, Harrison emerged as a surprise impact player in 2013. He was the best run-stopper in the league and it wasn't even close. Per Pro Football Focus, Harrison rated as a 33.2 against the run, almost twice as high as the next-best player, and he also led the league in run-stop percentage.

Players 90-81

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    Rick Scuteri/Associated Press

    90. Sheldon Richardson, DE, New York Jets (+) (NR)

    The top-rated rookie from the 2013 draft class, Sheldon Richardson's dominant first season earned him Defensive Rookie of the Year honors. You're not going to get much of anything from Richardson as a pass-rusher, but that's not what he's asked to do.

    Richardson is a monster against the run, plugging the holes for the league's top-ranked run defense. The former first-round pick hasn't come close to reaching his full potential yet, but he definitely will under Rex Ryan.

     

    89. Julius Thomas, TE, Denver Broncos (+) (NR)

    Even though he was drafted by the Broncos in the fourth round in 2011, Julius Thomas was essentially a rookie in 2013. After all, he caught just one pass during his first two seasons.

    Remember the hype surrounding Thomas during the offseason? Pretty ridiculous, especially for a fourth-round pick who had basically never played before. Yet all Thomas did was exceed everyone's expectations during a dominant third season.

    He caught 65 passes in 2013, turning them into 12 touchdowns. At 6'4'' and 251 pounds, Thomas is a nightmare for opposing defenses, and his production is only going to increase in 2014 with continued chemistry with Peyton Manning.

     

    88. Antrel Rolle, SS, New York Giants (NR)

    In a lost year for the New York Giants, Antrel Rolle was one of the few bright spots on the team. The 31-year-old veteran intercepted six passes and surrendered just a 43.1 passer rating in coverage, per Pro Football Focus.

    Rolle earned his third Pro Bowl selection and he did it while playing his third different position. After the Arizona Cardinals selected him as a cornerback with the eighth overall pick in 2005, Rolle moved to free safety in 2008 and over to strong safety in 2013.

     

    87. Vontaze Burfict, OLB, Cincinnati Bengals (+) (NR)

    From undrafted free agent to NFL tackles leader in 2013. That's the story of Vontaze Burfict, who emerged as an absolute force for the AFC North champions last season.

    Burfict collected 177 combined tackles, plus three sacks and three turnovers. He plays with a mean streak and perfectly fits the Bengals' style of football.

     

    86. Patrick Peterson, CB, Arizona Cardinals (32)

    If you ask Patrick Peterson, he's the best shutdown cornerback in the National Football League. If you ask me, he's currently the most overrated corner in the game. I'm not sure I'd use the term 'shutdown corner' to describe Peterson. I certainly wouldn't in 2013.

    Last year, Peterson surrendered seven touchdowns. His 91.3 passer rating allowed ranked just 66th out of 110 cornerbacks. He's one of just two cornerbacks in the league to allow at least six touchdown passes in the last two seasons.

    And Peterson's dangerous ability as a punt returner appears to be gone. After scoring a record-tying four touchdowns and averaging 15.9 yards per return as a rookie in 2011, Peterson scored no touchdowns and averaged just 6.0 yards per return in 2013.

    Peterson is still a valuable player because of his versatility. He can line up anywhere on the field for the Cardinals, he returns punts and he can even catch some passes on offense. But as far as pure coverage goes, Peterson needs to step up his game because he's coming off two disappointing seasons.

     

    85. Jordan Cameron, TE, Cleveland Browns (+) (NR)

    Is Johnny Manziel to Jordan Cameron the future in Cleveland? Well, it's certainly not Manziel to Josh Gordon.

    Last year, Cameron caught 80 passes for 917 yards and seven touchdowns. That was with Brandon Weeden, Brian Hoyer and Jason Campbell throwing him passes. There is a chance none of those three quarterbacks will ever be a Week 1 starter in the NFL again.

    How could Cameron do with a playmaker like Manziel throwing him the football? We'll find out in 2014, but at the very minimum, expect 1,000 yards and double-digit touchdowns. After all, it's Cameron or Nate Burleson catching passes.

     

    84. Kiko Alonso, MLB, Buffalo Bills (+) (NR)

    Just one year into his NFL career, Kiko Alonso is the heart and soul of one of the NFL's up-and-coming defenses. He's the anchor, the leader, the guy who makes the plays in the middle of the field.

    That's essentially all he did as a rookie, when he collected 159 combined tackles and collected four interceptions. This includes a ridiculous 22-tackle effort against the New England Patriots in Week 5.

    Although Alonso's production tailed off in the second half of the season, he played well enough to earn the PFWA's Defensive Rookie of the Year honors. Let's hope he can recover from his recently-suffered torn ACL and return as a dominant linebacker in 2015.

     

    83. Clay Matthews III, OLB, Green Bay Packers (-) (28)

    Clay Matthews exploded onto the scene during his first two years in the league, recording 23.5 sacks and consecutive Pro Bowl selections.

    But injuries have affected Matthews since 2011, as he's missed 10 games over the past three seasons. He's been virtually the only force the Packers have in their front seven, meaning defenses can focus completely on stopping Matthews.

    He's still a very good player and he's recorded 26.5 sacks over the past three years, but he's not quite the player he used to be and at age 28, it's unclear if Matthews can ever return to elite form.

     

    82. Larry Warford, G, Detroit Lions (+) (NR)

    How does a player like Larry Warford slip to the third round yet turn in such a brilliant rookie season?

    Pro Football Focus rated Warford as their fourth-best guard in 2013, even naming him as their Offensive Rookie of the Year. A model of consistency, Warford didn't experience any of the usual rookie struggles of most offensive linemen. He didn't allow a sack and was called for just four penalties all season.

     

    81. Vincent Jackson, WR, Tampa Bay Buccaneers (53)

    The NFL's active leader in yards per reception, Vincent Jackson has earned three Pro Bowl selections in the past five seasons.

    Jackson was still a stud in 2013, even as the Bucs transitioned from the end of the Josh Freeman era to the beginning of the Mike Glennon era. The big 6'5" receiver caught 78 passes for 1,224 yards and seven touchdowns.

Players 80-71

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    Nam Y. Huh/Associated Press

    80. Alex Mack, C, Cleveland Browns (NR)

    Alex Mack is another player who didn't receive any publicity until he hit free agency this offseason, but the bidding war that ensued shows just what type of player Mack is.

    He's graded as a top-10 center by Pro Football Focus for five straight seasons. He hasn't missed a game in his career. In fact, he hasn't missed a single play since he entered the league. That's insane. 

    Mack earned his second Pro Bowl selection this season and he's likely going to earn more in the next few seasons now that he's become relatively well-known, at least for a center.

     

    79. Devin McCourty, FS, New England Patriots (NR)

    Quick: Who was the highest-rated safety by Pro Football Focus in 2013? Not Earl Thomas. Not Troy Polamalu. Not Eric Weddle, Kam Chancellor or Jairus Byrd.

    Yup, it was Devin McCourty.

    He made the seamless transition from cornerback to safety midway through the 2012 season, which explains his lack of interceptions in 2013. But he did lead all safeties in passes defensed and he allowed just 18 completions during the regular season.

    He's the best defensive player on one of the best teams in the National Football League, so it's surprising that McCourty hasn't received the publicity he deserves.

     

    78. Eric Weddle, FS, San Diego Chargers (55)

    You want consistency from the safety position, you look at Eric Weddle.

    Two years after leading the league in interceptions, Weddle didn't surrender a single touchdown pass in 2013. He collected four turnovers and more than 100 tackles en route to his second Pro Bowl selection.

     

    77. Nate Solder, OT, New England Patriots (+) (NR)

    The big, powerful Solder has quietly established himself as one of the top offensive tackles in the National Football League with a breakout 2013 season.

    He allowed just 35 combined sacks, hits and hurries, which ranked him sixth among left tackles. Just 25 years old, he's already proven himself to be the long-term solution to replace Matt Light at the most important spot on the offensive line.

     

    76. Jordy Nelson, WR, Green Bay Packers (NR)

    Aaron Rodgers' favorite receiver, Jordy Nelson caught 85 passes for 1,314 yards and eight touchdowns in 2013. He rated as Pro Football Focus's second-best receiver for the season.

    He's never earned a Pro Bowl selection, but Nelson has been a top-10 receiver over the last three seasons. He's right in the middle of his prime.

     

    75. Muhammad Wilkerson, DE, New York Jets (+) (84)

    All three players on the New York Jets' defensive line made my list of the top 100 players in the NFL. Muhammad Wilkerson is the best of the three.

    While Sheldon Richardson and Damon Harrison are among the best in the game against the run, Wilkerson is the one pressuring the quarterback and collecting the sacks. His 10.5 sacks in 2013 led the team. The 24-year-old will only get better, along with the rest of his defensive line.

     

    74. Joe Staley, OT, San Francisco 49ers (40)

    Joe Staley's career took off when Jim Harbaugh became the 49ers head coach before the 2011 season. Over the last three years, Staley has rated as the 30th, first and fifth-best offensive tackle in the league, respectively, per Pro Football Focus. He's been a Pro Bowler each year, largely for his dominance as a run-blocker for veteran Frank Gore.

     

    73. Andrew Whitworth, OT, Cincinnati Bengals (87)

    One of the most underappreciated players in the league, Andrew Whitworth turned in the finest season of his career in 2013 at the ripe old age of 31.

    Coming off a Pro Bowl season in 2012, Whitworth dominated at left tackle but switched to left guard in the middle of the season when Clint Boling suffered an injury. He didn't miss a beat, playing just as well inside as he did outside.

    According to Pro Football Focus, he finished the season as the 15th-ranked tackle and the seventh-ranked guard. That's despite playing just half a season at both positions. Combine his grades and he'd be the third-best offensive lineman in the National Football League.

     

    72. Jurrell Casey, DT, Tennessee Titans (NR)

    After a couple of solid seasons to begin his career, Jurrell Casey exploded onto the scene as one of the league's best defensive tackles in 2013.

    Casey has work to do against the run, but as an inside rusher, he's as good as it gets. He collected 10.5 sacks and 36 quarterback hurries last year.

    The Titans are switching to a 3-4 defense under new head coach Ken Whisenhunt in 2014, but defensive coordinator Ray Horton still expects Casey to get lots of looks at his usual defensive tackle spot in 4-3 packages.

     

    71. Eric Berry, SS, Kansas City Chiefs (NR)

    Four seasons into his career, Eric Berry has exceeded all expectations since the Chiefs selected him fifth overall in the 2010 draft. Berry has earned three Pro Bowl selections in three full seasons, though he missed the 2011 season with a torn ACL.

    The 2013 season was easily the best year of his career, as he intercepted three passes and scored two touchdowns. He led all safeties with 3.5 sacks and rated as Pro Football Focus's second-best safety.

Players 70-61

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    Michael Perez/Associated Press

    70. Joe Haden, CB, Cleveland Browns (NR)

    Joe Haden entered the league with superstar expectations, and he's considered to be almost on the level of Darrelle Revis or Richard Sherman. But the tape and numbers don't back up Haden's undeserved reputation.

    He's one of just two cornerbacks to allow at least six touchdowns in each of the past two seasons (the other is Patrick Peterson). Touchdowns are really hard to overlook, even if Haden has a propensity for knocking down passes (20 in 2013).

    At just 25 years old, Haden has a chance to establish himself as one of the game's best cornerbacks, but right now, he's more of a very good player who has a lot of room to get better. 

     

    69. DeSean Jackson, WR, Washington Redskins (NR)

    It’s still unclear why the Philadelphia Eagles released their best wide receiver after a career year, an unprecedented move through the annals of NFL history.

    It could have been Jackson’s gang ties, per NJ.com. It could have been his many arguments with the coaching staff, including a well-publicized screaming match with wide receivers coach Bob Bicknell during a Week 15 loss to the Minnesota Vikings. It could have been his team-high $12.5 million contract in 2014. Or maybe it was simply Chip Kelly choosing to structure his offense a different way.

    After all, Jackson was very effective with Michael Vick early in the season, but he recorded fewer than 85 receiving yards in seven of the final eight games with Nick Foles throwing to him. That includes a disappointing postseason outing in which he recorded just 53 receiving yards and was completely shut down by Saints’ cornerback Keenan Lewis until Lewis was forced to leave the game with an injury.

    Regardless of why Jackson was released, there’s no denying the impact the 27-year-old had on the Eagles’ offense in 2013. He played all 16 games for the first time since his rookie year, leading the team in catches (82), yards (1,332) and touchdowns (9). His ability to draw double teams and blow the top off the defense worked wonders for the breakout seasons of both Foles and number two wide receiver Riley Cooper.

    After a couple of down seasons in 2011 and 2012, Jackson reached his full potential under Chip Kelly in 2013. Now it’s a question of whether the three-time Pro Bowler can continue to play at an elite level with RGIII in Washington.

     

    68. Nick Foles, QB, Philadelphia Eagles (+) (NR)

    Twenty-seven touchdowns. Two interceptions. The National Football League has been around for 93 seasons. It could be around for another 93 seasons and we may never again see a quarterback post a touchdown-to-interception ratio like Nick Foles did in 2013.

    What Foles did in 2013 is statistically one of the greatest seasons in league history.

    Besides setting the record for touchdown-to-interception percentage, he also set the all-time single season record for adjusted yards per pass attempt (10.50). His 119.2 passer rating is the third-best single-season mark ever. He also led the league in yards per attempt and yards per completion.

    And despite his well-publicized reputation as one of the slowest quarterbacks in the game, he rushed for 221 yards and three scores on almost four yards per carry. He even cured his fumbling issues from 2012, putting just four balls on the ground in 13 games.

    His performance against the Oakland Raiders in Week 9 stands alone as one of the greatest single-game showings this league has ever seen. Foles threw seven touchdowns in just 40 minutes of play. It's hardly unrealistic to think he could have thrown eight, nine or even 10 had the Eagles kept their foot on the gas all game.

    He led the Eagles a 10-6 record and a division title, including an 8-2 record in games he started. He led the team to at least 24 points in his final nine starts.

    Although the Eagles lost their first postseason game to the New Orleans Saints, Foles threw two touchdowns without an interception, including the go-ahead score with four minutes remaining.

    Whether the loss of DeSean Jackson hurts Foles' development in 2014 remains to be seen. What is clear, however, is that he has perhaps the game's greatest offensive mind coaching him. That, plus the additions of Darren Sproles, Jordan Matthews and Josh Huff, will make the loss of Jackson relatively easy to overcome.

    Foles can't possibly sustain his otherwordly touchdown-to-interception ratio in 2014. No quarterback in NFL history could. What he can do is prove over a full season that his dominant year from 2013 was no fluke. If he repeats his success, expect him to establish himself as a top-six or top-seven quarterback in the league by the end of the season.

     

    67. Colin Kaepernick, QB, San Francisco 49ers (+) (71)

    Colin Kaepernick might be the most dangerous combination of passing and running in the National Football League. When he's on, he's completely unstoppable.

    Kaepernick basically single-handedly took down the Green Bay Packers in the postseason in each of the last two years. If his arm isn't working, he uses his legs, like he did against the Seattle Seahawks in the NFC championship game. Although the 49ers still lost, Kaepernick ran for 130 yards and had the 49ers within a single pass of the Super Bowl.

    Kaepernick is in an unusual situation in San Francisco. He's never had to throw 40 passes in a game. He's never completed 20 passes in a game. By comparison, 10 active quarterbacks have averaged 20 completions per game throughout their career. He benefits from one of the best rushing attacks in the NFL, as well as a brilliant head coach, a top-three offensive line and a tremendous defense.

    He's rarely asked to win games by himself. I think he can, but we've never seen him win a 41-38 shootout in which he threw 52 passes.

    He's a great “one-game” quarterback because he makes enough plays to always keep his team in the game, but his consistency needs improvement. It's also hard to get past his three fourth-quarter turnovers in the NFC championship game.

    He needs to learn to go through his options instead of locking into one receiver and then running if the player isn't open. His completion percentage in 2013 (just 58.4 percent) was alarming. That ranked him 34th in the NFL.

    Just like Russell Wilson and Nick Foles, he's almost impossible to rate. He has the potential to be one of the best ever if he can properly master the quarterback position. But he hasn't reached his full potential yet and he still isn't the focal point of his team's offense.

    Right now, he's a very good quarterback who may or may not become an MVP-caliber player in the near future.

     

    66. Justin Smith, DE, San Francisco 49ers (-) (16)

    The oldest defensive player on my top 100 list, Justin Smith is slowing down, but he's still one of the best players on one of the best defenses in the game.

    He can play defensive tackle or end for the Niners and he's been selected to the Pro Bowl in each of the past five seasons.

     

    65. Jared Allen, DE, Chicago Bears (-) (23)

    I believe that Jared Allen is declining but he's still one of the most feared pass-rushers in the sport.

    He'll never again approach his 22-sack campaign from 2011, but he's still able to reach double-digit sacks, as he's done for each of the last seven seasons. He'll make a major impact for the Chicago Bears in 2014.

     

    64. Josh Sitton, G, Green Bay Packers (NR)

    One of the more under-the-radar dominant offensive linemen, Josh Sitton made a seamless transition from right to left guard in 2013. He graded as Pro Football Focus's second-ranked guard and didn't allow a single quarterback hit all season.

    In fact, he allowed just one sack and seven quarterback hurries in 1,141 snaps. Quite simply, he was the best pass-blocker in the entire NFL.

     

    63. Matt Forte, RB, Chicago Bears (NR)

    You have your top tier of running backs, which includes Adrian Peterson, LeSean McCoy and Jamaal Charles. Guys like Marshawn Lynch and Matt Forte fall into the next tier.

    Forte is entering his seventh consecutive season as the Bears' starting running back. He's collected at least 1,400 yards from scrimmage in all six years, including a career-best 1,933 yards and 12 touchdowns in 2013.

     

    62. Jairus Byrd, FS, New Orleans Saints (69)

    Even though the New Orleans Saints likely overpaid for Jairus Byrd in free agency, I actually find him to be very underrated as a player. All he does is make plays, year after year.

    Injuries affected Byrd for the first time ever in 2013, as he missed five games, but the 27-year-old still managed to collect four interceptions. Only three safeties in the NFL had more.

    Byrd also allowed a ridiculous 35.0 passer rating, a figure topped by just one player in the league last year.

     

    61. Calais Campbell, DE, Arizona Cardinals (46)

    Judge Calais Campbell by his statistics and you'd see a solid yet unspectacular defensive end—a player who collects about six sacks per year but will never come close to leading the league in that particular category.

    Judge Campbell by his game film and you'll see a mammoth force on the defensive line—a player able to take on multiple blockers, stop the run and pressure the quarterback.

Players 60-51

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    David Goldman/Associated Press

    60. Antonio Brown, WR, Pittsburgh Steelers (NR)

    The Pittsburgh Steelers allowed Mike Wallace to walk via free agency after the 2012 season. They never missed a beat in 2013. That's because Antonio Brown has emerged as one of the best (and least-talked about) receivers in the National Football League.

    Brown caught 110 passes for 1,499 yards and eight touchdowns. He ranked second in the league in both catches and yards. Throw in his punt-returning ability (12.8 yards per return and one touchdown) and it's pretty accurate to call Brown one of the best playmakers in the game.

     

    59. Derrick Johnson, OLB, Kansas City Chiefs (NR)

    Just like Tamba Hali, Derrick Johnson is a former first-round pick of the Chiefs who has spent nearly a decade with the team. And just like Hali, Johnson has earned three straight Pro Bowl selections.

    Since 2011, Johnson has averaged three sacks, two forced fumbles, an interception and more than 100 tackles per season. Johnson is completely overshadowed by elite players like Patrick Willis, but a few more years and Johnson has a legitimate Hall of Fame case.

     

    58. Dontari Poe, NT, Kansas City Chiefs (+) (NR)

    No defensive tackle in the National Football League played more snaps in 2013 than Dontari Poe, the 346-pound run-stuffer for the Kansas City Chiefs. Regardless of the down or situation, the Chiefs felt comfortable leaving Poe on the field.

    And they got some pretty positive results.

    After a somewhat disappointing rookie season, Poe emerged as a force in the middle of the Chiefs' defensive line, especially early in the year. Poe's first Pro Bowl selection should be the first of many for the 2013 first-round pick.

     

    57. Vernon Davis, TE, San Francisco 49ers (NR)

    In the past, I've called Vernon Davis the most overrated player in the National Football League. He took a big step toward proving me wrong in 2013, turning in the second-best season of his career. Davis caught 52 passes for 850 yards and 13 touchdowns, including a career-high 16.3 yards per catch.

    Davis has unlimited potential and should have been playing the way he did in 2013 for the previous seven years of his career. He's as gifted as any tight end in the game, displaying incredible speed and great size.

    Even though he's now 30 years old, Davis is a good enough player to rank among the top tight ends in the game for another half-decade.

     

    56. Ryan Clady, OT, Denver Broncos (34)

    On a normal NFL team, the loss of Ryan Clady for the season's final 14 games would have been catastrophic. The Broncos survived only because they had the greatest quarterback in league history under center.

    But against a dominant pass rush like that of the Seattle Seahawks in the Super Bowl, you saw how much Denver missed Clady. He wouldn't have made the difference in a 35-point blowout, but he might have been able to help Denver score more than just eight points.

    Let's hope Clady returns to elite form in 2014. A three-time Pro Bowler, Clady allowed just a single sack and 15 hurries in 2012. He's one of the five best tackles in the game.

     

    55. Cameron Wake, DE, Miami Dolphins (13)

    One of the NFL's biggest success stories, Cameron Wake entered the NFL in 2009 at the age of 27 after establishing himself as the best pass-rusher in the CFL. He's continued his success in the world's highest league, recording 51.5 sacks over the past five seasons.

    Wake provided the team's biggest play of the season in Week 9, a game-winning safety in overtime to beat Andy Dalton and the Cincinnati Bengals, keeping the Dolphins right in the middle of the playoff hunt.

     

    54. Tamba Hali, OLB, Kansas City Chiefs (NR)

    The San Francisco 49ers' set of linebackers is easily the best in the NFL, but the Kansas City Chiefs aren't too far behind.

    Tamba Hali is their best linebacker and has been an absolute force for the past half-decade. The former first-round pick has averaged 11.5 sacks and 3.5 forced fumbles per year since 2011. He scored his first two career touchdowns in 2013 and helped the Chiefs finish as the fifth-ranked scoring defense in the NFL.

     

    53. Arian Foster, RB, Houston Texans (-) (48)

    From 2010 to 2012, Arian Foster was in the discussion with Adrian Peterson as the best running back in the National Football League. But hamstring and back injuries ended his 2013 season after just eight games, 542 rushing yards and one, count 'em, one rushing touchdown.

    At 28 years old, Foster should still have some mileage left. After all, he entered the league in 2009 but has only spent three years as the full-time starter and has just 1,131 career carries.

     

    52. Julio Jones, WR, Atlanta Falcons (+) (56)

    Count me among the few who consider Julio Jones a disappointment at this stage in his short NFL career. The talent is there. There’s no question about that. He just hasn’t reached his potential yet.

    Many would be surprised to learn that Jones’ most receiving yards in a season is just 1,198. He’s never caught 80 passes or scored more than 10 touchdowns. He appeared to be in the midst of a breakout season in 2013, totaling 581 yards through his first five games, before a foot injury ended his season.

    Jones will become one of the game’s top three or four wide receivers, likely sooner rather than later. There’s absolutely no doubt in my mind. He just hasn’t done it yet.

    The pressure is on this season, especially with the Falcons looking to rebound from a dismal 4-12 season. Jones needs to establish himself as the team’s primary offensive weapon, especially without Tony Gonzalez and as Roddy White begins the decline in his career.

     

    51. Duane Brown, OT, Houston Texans (19)

    Consistent, durable and a wrecking ball at left tackle for the Texans, Duane Brown's production slipped off a bit in 2013, but he still managed to earn his second straight Pro Bowl selection.

    He's just 28 years old and should remain one of the league's best linemen for the next half-decade.

Players 50-41

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    Patric Schneider/Associated Press

    50. Tyron Smith, OT, Dallas Cowboys (+) (NR)

    The 2013 season was a major relief for both the Dallas Cowboys and Tyron Smith, as the third-year left tackle shook off early-career struggles to become one of the game's elite offensive linemen.

    Smith allowed just a single sack and three quarterback hits during more than 1,000 snaps as Tony Romo's blindside blocker. Just 23 years old, Smith is the second tackle I would select if I was starting an NFL franchise from scratch.

     

    49. Larry Fitzgerald, WR, Arizona Cardinals (-) (30)

    Larry Fitzgerald may or may not be on the decline, but I vote that he is. After all, his last two seasons have been the most disappointing of his career from a statistical standpoint.

    In 2013, Fitzgerald caught 82 passes for 954 yards and 10 touchdowns. Those totals ranked him just 19th, 25th and 10th in the league, respectively. Time will tell if the 30-year-old has started his decline or if his once-dominant statistics are just affected by subpar quarterback play and a pretty good receiver (Michael Floyd) on the other side of the field.

    Once a shoo-in for the Hall of Fame, Fitzgerald needs at least three or four more great seasons to ensure a spot in Canton after he finishes his playing career.

     

    48. Kyle Williams, DE, Buffalo Bills (NR)

    Versatility is everything in the National Football League, and a player like Kyle Williams can play anywhere—and do anything—on the defensive line. He's played defensive tackle and defensive end in a 3-4 and a 4-3. Nose tackle, five-technique, pass-rusher, run-stopper. You name it, he's done it.

    Even at 31, Williams is at the top of his game. He set a career-high with 10.5 sacks in 2013, earning his third Pro Bowl selection in the last four seasons.

     

    47. Mario Williams, DE, Buffalo Bills (NR)

    Mario Williams has an undeserved reputation for not living up to his potential after signing the largest contract by a defensive player in NFL history before the 2012 season.

    But all he's done in the last two seasons is collect 23.5 sacks and three forced fumbles while playing for a perennial loser.

    Still just 29 years old despite entering his ninth season, the former No. 1 overall pick is the best player on a slowly improving defense.

     

    46. Justin Houston, OLB, Kansas City Chiefs (+) (NR)

    You won't hear Justin Houston's name mentioned among the best linebackers in the NFL, and it's true that at this point he's a step behind elite players like Von Miller, NaVorro Bowman and Luke Kuechly. But that could change soon, as Houston is just 25 years old and improving each year.

    In 2013, he missed five games but still collected 11 sacks and three fumble recoveries for one of the league's best defenses. Pro Football Focus rated him as the best outside linebacker in the NFL and seventh-best overall defensive player.

     

    45. Dez Bryant, WR, Dallas Cowboys (+) (35)

    Player A: 93 catches, 1,233 yards and 13 touchdowns.

    Player B: 92 catches, 1,430 yards and 14 touchdowns.

    Player B is slightly more impressive, wouldn't you say? But what if you found out that the first player caught passes from Tony Romo and the second (Demaryius Thomas) caught passes from Peyton Manning? Then it's about equal, isn't it?

    Bryant is big, strong and dominant, and I'd argue that he hasn't even reached his peak yet. That's a scary thought for the rest of the NFC East.

     

    44. Tony Romo, QB, Dallas Cowboys (44)

    Tony Romo is the most overcriticized quarterback in the NFL. Easily. Whether it's his contract or his late-game interceptions, he's frequently the focal point of criticism all across the media. And it's a shame because he's a really good quarterback.

    In 2013, Romo threw 31 touchdowns and just 10 interceptions. His 96.7 passer rating ranked eighth in the league. He led Dallas to eight wins despite one of the worst defenses in the league.

    But the highlights you'll see on TV from Romo's 2013 season are of his mistakes. His game-losing interception against Peyton Manning's Broncos, in a game the Cowboys lost 51-48 despite Romo throwing for 506 yards and five touchdowns. Or his two interceptions in the final three minutes of a 37-36 loss to Matt Flynn's Packers, a game the Cowboys led by 23 points at halftime. Or even the season finale NFC East championship against the Eagles, a game Romo had to miss because of a back injury he suffered the previous week.

    There's no denying Romo makes a lot of mistakes, and he seems to make a lot of them when all of America is watching. But he's still a pretty good quarterback, even as he enters his age-34 season.

    He'll never win a Super Bowl. But blame his team—and owner—for that. Don't blame Romo.

     

    43. Ndamukong Suh, DT, Detroit Lions (39)

    You can call Ndamukong Suh one of the dirtiest players in the National Football League and that's completely accurate. But he's also one of the best.

    Suh is a bowling ball in the middle of the Lions' defensive line, a 300-pound player who can't be stopped by just one blocker. He collected 5.5 sacks and six defensed passes in 2013. It's hard to justify paying him more than $20 million, but he's absolutely worth locking up to a long-term contract extension next offseason.

     

    42. Robert Mathis, OLB, Indianapolis Colts (NR)

    From 2003 to 2012, Robert Mathis established himself as one of the league's top pass-rushers. A four-time Pro Bowler, Mathis was a model of consistency, recording between 9.0 and 11.5 sacks seven times.

    Then in 2013, at age 32, Mathis exploded for one of the best seasons by a pass-rusher, well, ever. Mathis led the NFL with 19.5 sacks, winning the inaugural Deacon Jones award. He tied a single-season record by forcing 10 fumble, and he finished second in Defensive Player of the Year voting.

    What makes Mathis's season so special is that he entered the 2013 season without sack artist Dwight Freeney on the opposite side of the field for the first time in a decade. Freeney, who signed with the San Diego Chargers in free agency, was always considered the superior of the two pass-rushers. But it was Mathis who turned in a year that Freeney could only have dreamed about.

    Oh, and Mathis' dominant season also came while learning a new position for the second straight year. After nine years as a normal 4-3 defensive end, Mathis switched to strongside linebacker in 2012 before moving to the role of rush linebacker in 2013.

    The only blemish on Mathis's season (and it's a big one) came after the season when he was suspended for four games after testing positive for PEDs. When a 32-year-old player turns in a career year and then tests positive for PEDs, well, it doesn't look good. That's why Mathis is going to need to come close to duplicating his 2013 campaign for me to rank him with the other elite pass-rushers in the game.

     

    41. Andre Johnson, WR, Houston Texans (-) (14)

    You can just pencil Andre Johnson in for 110 catches and 1,500 receiving yards every season, even as he enters his 12th year in the league. He's consistent, durable and one of the most underappreciated players in the game, probably because of his lack of touchdowns (just 61 in his career).

    Even in 2013, with the Texans' dumpster fire quarterback situation that included Matt Schaub and Case Keenum, Johnson caught 109 passes for 1,407 yards and five touchdowns. He was the most targeted receiver in the league, and his seventh Pro Bowl selection practically locked up his Hall of Fame spot.

Players 40-31

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    Ted S. Warren/Associated Press

    40. Demaryius Thomas, WR, Denver Broncos (+) (57)

    In 2011, Demaryius Thomas caught 32 passes for 551 yards and four touchdowns. That was with Tim Tebow, arguably the worst passing quarterback in the league. In 2012 and 2013, Demaryius Thomas averaged 93 catches, 1,432 yards and 12 touchdowns. That was with Peyton Manning, arguably the best passing quarterback in the league.

    Sure, Thomas probably was a little better of a player in his third and fourth seasons, but that right there illustrates how even a great receiver is ineffective with a subpar quarterback.

    It's difficult to compare Thomas to other receivers, because they don't have Peyton Manning throwing them passes. But they also don't have to compete for passes with other targets, as Thomas had to with Eric Decker, Wes Welker and Julius Thomas over the past two seasons.

    Regardless, Thomas is one of the game's elite receivers, and he's just entering his peak years. You can pencil him in for at least 90 catches, 1,400 yards and 10 touchdowns next year. 

     

    39. Marshawn Lynch, RB, Seattle Seahawks (-) (43)

    I hate expressions like “high motor” and “runs hard” but if there's a player in the National Football League who it applies to, it's Marshawn Lynch. Over the last few seasons, Lynch has established himself as the best power back in the game.

    In 2013, Lynch ran for 1,257 yards and 12 touchdowns. He forced 75 missed tackles, easily the most in the NFL. In fact, no running back in the last seven years has had more than 64 in a season, per Pro Football Focus.

    Including the postseason, Lynch touched the ball more than 400 times (403). He turned 28 this offseason and it's difficult to know how much longer he can function as a workhorse on the most run-heavy team in the NFL. But right now, at this moment, he's the fourth-best back in the game.


    38. Ben Roethlisberger, QB, Pittsburgh Steelers (-) (17)

    By this point in his career, you pretty much know what you have with Ben Roethlisberger. He's never been a top-two or top-three quarterback in the game but he's always been in the top 10. He's good enough to win a Super Bowl (or two) with an elite defense but he's not going to take you there himself.

    The 2013 season marked the first time in Roethlisberger's career that he missed the postseason in consecutive seasons. He shattered his career-high by throwing 584 passes, and his 28 touchdown passes were his most in a season since 2007.

    But at age 32, it's fair to question how much longer Roethlisberger can produce in the National Football League, especially with all the wear and tear he deals with during each season. He's still a very good quarterback, but the new age of quarterbacks is catching up, and passing him, in the rankings.

     

    37. Russell Wilson, QB, Seattle Seahawks (+) (49)

    I'll admit from the start that Russell Wilson is perhaps the most difficult player to judge in the entire National Football League.

    First, let's look at the positives. After a terrific rookie season, Wilson completely avoided a sophomore slump by posting virtually identical statistics in 2013. Seriously, look at how similar his numbers are. It's amazing.

    Wilson's claim to fame, of course, came in the postseason when he led the Seahawks to their first Super Bowl title in franchise history. He threw for just one interception in three postseason games and his 123.1 passer rating against Denver in Super Bowl XLVIII probably should have earned him MVP honors.

    Wilson is a gifted playmaker—a quarterback who can make things happen with his arm or his legs. He's not so much a running quarterback as he is a talented passer who also possesses the ability to run (and at an elite level).

    But, let's address the negatives before moving on. Wilson is blessed, extremely blessed, by his defense, arguably one of the best in NFL history. He also has a brilliant head coach and a top-five running back in the game. And he benefited from a receiving corps that dropped just 14 passes all season (compared to 58 for Matthew Stafford). While he's usually not the reason the Seahawks lose, he's rarely the main reason why they win.

    It's completely accurate to call Wilson a game manager. He's as good as it gets for a game manager but that's exactly what you call a quarterback who only has to attempt 20 or 25 passes per game. Three quarterbacks completed more passes than he attempted in 2013 (407).

    It's so difficult to compare Wilson to a quarterback like Peyton Manning or Drew Brees, or even Andrew Luck or Philip Rivers. Those players are the identity of their team's offense. They're asked to carry the team, frequently throwing 45 to 55 passes in a shootout. They don't have elite running backs or defenses to mask their mistakes. If they have an off game, their team will lose. It's as simple as that.

    It's not Wilson's fault. He just does what he's asked to do and he does it pretty well. But until he is asked to do as much as the game's elite quarterbacks, he remains a very good quarterback who plays on the right team at the right time.

     

    36. Brandon Marshall, WR, Chicago Bears (24)

    Here's a stat for you: If you just take Brandon Marshall's blocking ability, he graded as the tenth-best wide receiver in the NFL in 2013, per Pro Football Focus. Add in his contributions as an actual receiver, and he was easily the top-graded player at his position.

    You want consistency? Marshall has recorded 100 catches five times in the last seven seasons. By comparison, Calvin Johnson has done it once. Dez Bryant, Julio Jones and A.J. Green have never done it.

    Marshall has never led the league in any receiving category. He's been a first-team All-Pro just once. All he's going to do each season is catch 100 passes for 1,300 yards and 10 touchdowns. Do that for seven straight seasons, add in tremendous blocking abilities and you have one of the best receivers in the National Football League.

     

    35. Greg Hardy, DE, Carolina Panthers (+) (NR)

    Before the 2013 season, Greg Hardy predicted that he would get 50 sacks. Obviously, he came nowhere close to 50 sacks. But he did finish with 15 sacks, ranking him third in the NFL, and establishing himself as one of the best young pass-rushers in the sport.

    The best pass-rusher on one of the league's best defenses, Hardy will become even more dominant with the continued development of Star Lotulelei and Charles Johnson.

     

    34. Jason Peters, OT, Philadelphia Eagles (36)

    Quarterbacks always receive the publicity in the NFL and that’s likely why Jason Peters didn’t win Comeback Player of the Year in 2013. But it’s pretty easy to make a case for the 32-year-old’s career resurrection as the most impressive individual player comeback of the season.

    Peters missed the entire 2012 season after tearing his Achilles tendon—twice, in fact. He rebounded to play in all 16 games in 2013, his first full season since 2006.

    Although he started off a little slow, he finished the year at almost as high a level as he had played at during the 2011 season. He allowed 30 hurries, but just six came in the final eight games of the year. Peters was awarded with his sixth Pro Bowl selection, plus his second First-Team All-Pro bid.

    An undrafted free agent tight end in 2004, Peters’ career has been nothing short of remarkable. He’s just two or three dominant years away from solidifying his spot in the Pro Football Hall of Fame.

     

    33. Trent Williams, OT, Washington Redskins (+) (NR)

    If I was starting an NFL franchise from scratch, Trent Williams would be my left tackle of the future. Just 25 years old, Williams is already on the verge of becoming the best offensive tackle in the game.

    In fact, he graded as such in 2013, according to Pro Football Focus, finally turning into the dominant pass-blocker that the Redskins hoped for when they drafted him with the fourth overall pick in the 2010 draft. Moving forward, the focal point of the Redskins’ offense is RGIII, but the best player on the team, right now, is Trent Williams.

     

    32. Lavonte David, ILB, Tampa Bay Buccaneers (+) (NR)

    Lavonte David didn't make the Pro Bowl in 2013. That's a shame because he was only the second-best linebacker in the National Football League.

    Quite simply, he made plays all season. He intercepted five passes. He collected six sacks. He forced two fumbles and defensed nine passes. And he collected 145 tackles and a safety.

    David likely hasn't even reached his full potential yet and it sure doesn't help that the rest of Tampa Bay's linebackers aren't very productive. Expect David to become an absolute playmaker under Lovie Smith, who helped develop Brian Urlacher in Chicago.

     

    31. Gerald McCoy, DT, Tampa Bay Buccaneers (+) (92)

    In 2012, Gerald McCoy finally became the player the Tampa Bay Buccaneers hoped for when they selected him third overall in the 2010 draft. In 2013, he became the second-best defensive tackle in the entire NFL.

    In fact, Pro Football Focus rated him as the best defensive tackle, largely due to his pass-rushing abilities (nine sacks). He's the only legitimate weapon on his team's defensive line but he's still an absolute wrecking ball who is virtually unblockable.

    McCoy might be the most dominant defensive player in the game who isn't talked about, for whatever reason. If McCoy takes another step forward in 2014, you're looking at a player who could turn into at the next Warren Sapp.

Players 30-21

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    Phelan M. Ebenhack/Associated Press

    30. Brent Grimes, CB, Miami Dolphins (NR)

    As far as comeback stories go, it really doesn't get more impressive than what Brent Grimes did from 2012 to 2013. After tearing his Achilles tendon, Grimes rebounded with one of the best seasons by any cornerback in the league.

    He didn't allow a single touchdown pass, collecting four interceptions and surrendering just a 66.3 passer rating. Pro Football Focus rated Grimes as the league's second-best cornerback.

    After the season, the Dolphins inked the 30-year-old to a four-year deal that included $16 million in guaranteed money.

     

    29. Aldon Smith, OLB, San Francisco 49ers (64)

    Count Aldon Smith among the many dominant pass-rushers who took a step back in the 2013 season. After collecting 33.5 sacks in his first two seasons, Smith recorded just 8.5 sacks in 11 games in 2013, missing five games with off-field issues.

    He is expected to be suspended for the 2014 season following more off-field issues. That has no bearing on his ranking. But his career-worst year in 2013 does.

    Smith is one of the best pass-rushers in the game, even if he relies heavily on Justin Smith to free up blockers. (I still can't get over how poorly Aldon Smith played late in the 2012 season when Justin Smith was hurt.) He's not even 25 years old and he has a bright future ahead of him. But he needs to keep his head on straight and focus solely on football. He's in the discussion as the best player on one of the best teams in the game.

     

    28. Evan Mathis, OG, Philadelphia Eagles (67)

    The Philadelphia Eagles signed Evan Mathis before the 2011 season as veteran insurance for their offensive line. Three years later, he’s the sole survivor of the now infamous Dream Team signing spree that eventually cost head coach Andy Reid his job.

    Pro Football Focus’s top-rated guard for each of the last three seasons (he’s received a positive grade all 48 games in Philly), Mathis finally began to receive some long overdue recognition in 2013 when he earned his first Pro Bowl selection. He’s impressive as a pass-blocker but he’s earned his reputation as a run-blocker, where he’s been an absolute mauler in opening up holes for LeSean McCoy.

    Although he turned 32 this past season, Mathis has shown no signs of slowing down. His career has been nothing short of remarkable, as the 2005 third-round pick bounced around between three teams before finally finding success in Philadelphia.

     

    27. Joe Thomas, OT, Cleveland Browns (12)

    Consistency and dominance. That's really what it's all about when it comes to Joe Thomas. Most would consider Thomas the best offensive tackle in the National Football League. I certainly would.

    A Pro Bowler for the seventh straight season and an All-Pro for the fourth time, Thomas has never missed a game in his career. He's blocked for some of the worst quarterbacks in the NFL, including Charlie Frye, Brady Quinn, Colt McCoy, Jake Delhomme, Seneca Wallace and Brandon Weeden. He's never played in the postseason and his team has lost at least 11 games in six straight seasons.

    Now Thomas gets to protect the blind side of Johnny Manziel. The Browns will be a sleeper postseason team in 2014, but even if it's Manziel making the plays to get them there, nobody deserves to play in January more than Thomas. He's been the team's best player for the last seven seasons.

     

    26. Rob Gronkowski, TE, New England Patriots (25)

    For the most part, I try not to let a fluke injury drop a player in my top 100 rankings. Julio Jones, Geno Atkins and Von Miller are three examples of players who were not affected in my rankings by their various injuries.

    But Rob Gronkowski? He's going to suffer a drop in my rankings because he can't stay healthy. His torn ACL late in the 2013 season is his fourth major injury in the last two calendar years.

    Gronk is an unbelievable weapon when he's healthy. Look at some of his statistics. He scored 18 touchdowns in 2011, as many as the St. Louis Rams. He scored 11 in just 11 games in 2012. And while he wasn't quite as dominant in 2013, he still collected 592 yards and four touchdowns in less than half a season in 2013.

    No tight end in the NFL is more valuable than Gronk, and that includes Jimmy Graham. It's not unreasonable to assume that the Patriots could have won the Super Bowl in 2011 and reached it in 2012 if Gronk had been able to play. He's probably going to miss the start of the 2014 season, but if he can at least return for the postseason, he'll be able to make his impact felt.

     

    25. Patrick Willis, ILB, San Francisco 49ers (-) (15)

    There's no question that Patrick Willis is a future Hall of Famer. He's one of the best inside linebackers in the history of the NFL, as evidenced by a Pro Bowl selection all seven seasons he's been in the league.

    He's been a model of consistency even as he suffered through arguably his worst year as a pro: 104 tackles, three sacks and two forced fumbles in 14 games.

    Willis has been surpassed by NaVorro Bowman as the best linebacker on the 49ers, but at 29, he still has a few more years to continue building his Hall of Fame resume.

     

    24. Matt Ryan, QB, Atlanta Falcons (29)

    It's hard to imagine a quarterback playing as well as Matt Ryan did during a season where his team won just four games.

    Ryan set a career-high in completions (439) and attempts (651), while throwing for more than 4,500 yards and 26 touchdowns. He did suffer a notable decline in yards per attempt and passer rating, but that's to be expected when your best wide receiver suffers a season-ending foot injury after five games.

    The big question for Ryan is how he will fare without his security blanket, all-world tight end Tony Gonzalez, who retired following the 2013 season.

    Ryan is a quarterback who really needs weapons to succeed. He's not elite like Peyton Manning or Tom Brady and he probably never will be. He's in the next tier of quarterbacks, the guys who usually make the postseason and put up relatively big passing numbers, but haven't won a Super Bowl and don't usually contend for an MVP award.

     

    23. Earl Thomas, FS, Seattle Seahawks (+) (66)

    When it comes to the safety position, there's Earl Thomas and then there's everybody else.

    Sure, it helps playing in the league's best defensive backfield on the league's best defense, but Thomas would be a stud anywhere. In 2013, Thomas was probably the second-best player on the Super Bowl champions, recording five interceptions and a career-high 105 tackles.

    He's played in all 64 games during his career and he's barely 25 years old. Thomas is going to be a special player in this league for a long time.

     

    22. A.J. Green, WR, Cincinnati Bengals (+) (18)

    Calvin Johnson and Josh Gordon make up the group of elite receivers in the NFL, but A.J. Green is not far behind.

    Just 25 years old, Green still hasn't reached his full potential. He's a model of consistency, reaching more than 1,000 yards every year of his career. He's improved from year to year, and his statistics in 2013 were the best he's posted so far: 98 catches for 1,426 yards and 11 touchdowns.

    Green is the second-best receiver in the AFC despite catching passes from a quarterback who enters the 2014 season fighting for his job. Imagine Green on the Broncos catching passes from Peyton Manning or on the Saints catching passes from Drew Brees. It's not unreasonable to think he could challenge the single-season record for receiving yards.

     

    21. Cam Newton, QB, Carolina Panthers (+) (94)

    The general NFL public made a big deal over Cam Newton's third season because it was the first time in his career that he played for a winning football team. But Newton in 2013 was pretty much the same as he was in 2011 and 2012.

    The most impressive aspect of his game was his reduced fumbles fumbles (just three). He set career highs in touchdown passes and passer rating, and for the third straight season, he played in all 16 games.

    It's going to be difficult for him to continue his success in 2014 with such a depleted receiving corps and offensive line. He needs to take a big step to become one of the game's elite quarterbacks, and it's a shame that he doesn't receive more help from his teammates (or coaching staff).

Players 20-11

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    Tony Gutierrez/Associated Press

    20. Geno Atkins, DT, Cincinnati Bengals (10)

    Geno Atkins burst onto the scene in 2012 in a way that would have certainly generated national attention if it wasn't for the greatest year in history for young pass-rushers. But while J.J. Watt, Von Miller and Aldon Smith were all challenging the single-season sack record, Atkins picked up 12.5 sacks—as an interior pass-rusher.

    Atkins posted the second-greatest season in the six-year history of Pro Football Focus, and that's by any player at any position (he trailed Watt's record-setting 2012 campaign).

    Atkins jumped off to another hot start in 2013, but the league's best defensive tackle tore his ACL in Week 6 and missed the remainder of the season.

    Just 26 years old, Atkins was not penalized in my rankings for a fluke injury. I have complete confidence that the Bengals' best player will return to elite form in 2014.

     

    19. Jimmy Graham, TE, New Orleans Saints (33)

    Calvin Johnson is the clear-cut best receiving threat in the National Football League, and it's really not even close. But number two on the list is probably tight end Jimmy Graham.

    What he did in 2013 stands as one of the best individual seasons by a tight end in league history. Graham caught 86 passes for 1,215 yards and a league-leading 16 touchdowns. He recorded either 100 yards or a touchdown in 12 of the 16 regular season games.

    Just 27 years old, Graham will continue to be Drew Brees' primary offensive weapon, even with the addition of first-round pick Brandin Cooks. Graham has a chance to finish in the top three all-time in major receiving categories for tight ends.

     

    18. Josh Gordon, WR, Cleveland Browns (+) (NR)

    Josh Gordon just completed one of the greatest seasons by a wide receiver in NFL history. That's hardly an exaggeration.

    In just 14 games, Gordon caught 87 passes for 1,646 yards and nine touchdowns. In a two-game span in Weeks 11 and 12, Gordon caught 24 passes for 498 yards and three touchdowns. He led the NFL in receiving yards, with his 117.6 yards per game ranking as the sixth-greatest single-season total ever.

    His 16-game projection looks like this: 99 catches for 1,881 yards and 10 touchdowns. Jerry Rice himself never had as many receiving yards in a season and he had Joe Montana and Steve Young throwing him passes. Gordon caught passes from the likes of Brandon Weeden, Brian Hoyer and Jason Campbell. None of the three are a top-25 quarterback in the sport.

    Gordon's off-field issues have no impact on his ranking. It's a shame for the Cleveland Browns and Johnny Manziel because Gordon has as much potential as any player in the game. He'll be just 24 years old when he returns from his anticipated one-year suspension, and if he can keep his head on straight, there is absolutely no limit to what Gordon can do on a football field.

     

    17. NaVorro Bowman, ILB, San Francisco 49ers (27)

    Six different players received votes for the 2013 NFL Defensive Player of the Year award. NaVorro Bowman, for some reason, was not on the list. Perhaps Bowman was overlooked because he plays on one of the league's best defenses, but in that case, why did Luke Kuechly, Richard Sherman and Earl Thomas receive votes?

    Regardless, Bowman posted his best season as a pro, collecting 145 tackles, five sacks and six forced fumbles. He also provided arguably the signature play of the year for the 49ers, returning an interception 89 yards for a game-winning score in the final minute of a playoff-clinching victory over the Atlanta Falcons in Week 16.

    Bowman is the prototypical inside linebacker in today's NFL. He can cover, stop the run, rush the passer and hit like a truck. He's just 26 years old and should be able to rebound from a serious knee injury suffered in the NFC championship game against the Seattle Seahawks.

     

    16. Philip Rivers, QB, San Diego Chargers (NR)

    It’s baffling to me how Philip Rivers doesn’t receive the respect he deserves across the NFL. He’s a borderline elite quarterback who successfully revived his career at age 32, even winning NFL Comeback Player of the Year honors, and yet he’s rarely, if ever, mentioned among the game’s best quarterbacks.

    You could make a pretty easy argument for Rivers as a top-five quarterback in the league in 2013. He led the NFL in completion percentage (69.5 percent), while throwing for 4,478 yards, 32 touchdowns and just 11 interceptions. His 105.5 passer rating tied his career-high. He also drastically improved his yards per attempt, from 6.8 in 2012 to 8.2 in 2013.

    The Chargers won their final four games to sneak into the playoffs as the AFC’s sixth seed, where Rivers turned in a flawless performance as the Chargers upset the Cincinnati Bengals on the road.

    It’s become apparent that Rivers is one of the top statistical quarterbacks in the league, ranking in the top seven all-time in completion percentage, yards per attempt, touchdown-to-interception ratio and passer rating. For him to receive the credit he deserves as one of the game’s best, he likely needs to turn in a memorable postseason run, preferably winning a Super Bowl.

     

    15. Von Miller, LB, Denver Broncos (8)

    Von Miller’s potential in the National Football League was basically unlimited following the 2012 season.

    The league’s Defensive Rookie of the Year in 2011, Miller turned in a campaign in 2012 that would have earned him Defensive Player of the Year in almost any other season. The former number two overall pick collected 18.5 sacks and 52 quarterback hurries. His 39 defeats ranked second among outside linebackers since 1996, per Football Outsiders.

    Then everything that could go wrong did in 2013. He was suspended for the first six games of the season for violating league policy and then attempting to cheat a drug test. When he returned, he was dominant but not nearly at the level he played at in 2012. Then he tore his ACL in Week 16, prematurely ending his season.

    Miller was a consensus top-10 player in the league following the end of his second year. He’s still a dominant player, but to return to an elite ranking, he needs to keep his head on straight, return fully healthy from his injury and play at the level he did in 2012.

     

    14. Jamaal Charles, RB, Kansas City Chiefs (21)

    Jamaal Charles has been the most underrated running back in the NFL since he entered the league as a third-round pick in 2008. All he does, every single year, is average more than five yards per carry and produce close to 2,000 yards of total offense.

    His brilliant 2013 season earned him MVP consideration but it wasn't much different than an average year for the three-time Pro Bowler. Charles rushed for 1,287 yards and a league-high 12 touchdowns on 5.0 yards per carry. He also caught 70 passes for 693 yards and seven touchdowns. In all, he recorded nearly 2,000 yards from scrimmage and 19 total touchdowns.

    It's a shame that Charles suffered a concussion early in the Chiefs' wild-card game against the Indianapolis Colts. They blew a 38-10 lead, losing 45-44, but there's no way they would have lost if their best player remained healthy.

     

    13. LeSean McCoy, RB, Philadelphia Eagles (63)

    It's impossible to figure out whether Nick Foles or LeSean McCoy was the more valuable player to the Eagles in the 2013 season. Both were legitimate MVP candidates. But only McCoy has a legitimate argument as the best at his position—just ask him.

    Although I think Adrian Peterson is still a little better, McCoy is poised to take over the title as NFL's best running back by the end of this season.

    Look what he did in 2013. He led the NFL in carries (314), yards (1,607), yards per game (100.4) and yards from scrimmage (2,146). He scored 11 touchdowns and fumbled just once.

    His biggest contribution came in the Snow Bowl against the Detroit Lions in Week 14, when he rushed 29 times for 217 yards and two touchdowns. In the fourth quarter alone, he carried nine times for 145 yards and a pair of scores, helping the Eagles set a single-quarter franchise record with 28 points.

    It's almost unfathomable that McCoy is still just 25 years old. He's played five seasons, earned a pair of All-Pro selections and is knocking on the door as the Eagles' all-time rushing yards leader.

     

    12. Robert Quinn, DE, St. Louis Rams (+) (NR)

    J.J. Watt was the league's best defensive player in 2013. But Robert Quinn was the best pass-rusher in the game, and with the former first-round pick just 24 years old, expect him to collect double-digit sacks for the next five to seven years.

    Quinn exploded for 19 sacks in 2013, the most in the NFL. He also forced seven fumbles. He led the league with 91 total pressures (combined sacks, hits and hurries), according to Pro Football Focus. The guys at PFF also ranked Quinn as the second-best player in the entire NFL in 2013, writing that “The league has a new standard when it comes to speed-rushing defensive ends and Robert Quinn is it.”

     

    11. Luke Kuechly, MLB, Carolina Panthers (+) (76)

    What could Luke Kuechly possibly do in 2014 that he hasn't already done in his short NFL career? Kuechly followed up his Defensive Rookie of the Year campaign by collecting Defensive Player of the Year honors in 2013.

    An absolute tackling machine, Kuechly recorded a single-game NFL record 26 in a Week 16 contest against the New Orleans Saints. He's the best player on one of the best defenses in the league, a player who has averaged 11 tackles a game throughout his career.

    Add in some underrated skills in coverage (six interceptions and 16 passes defensed) and you have a 23-year-old player who looks like he's well on his way to becoming the next Ray Lewis or Brian Urlacher.

Players 10-1

10 of 10

    Ted S. Warren/Associated Press

    10. Adrian Peterson, RB, Minnesota Vikings (-) (5)

    Just like Calvin Johnson and J.J. Watt, Adrian Peterson set the bar so high in 2012 that his 2013 season was a disappointment, by his standards. And that's a shame, because he was still one of the best running backs in the National Football League.

    Although he missed two games to injuries, AP rushed for 1,266 yards and 10 touchdowns on 4.5 yards per carry. As usual, he was the focal point of his team's offense. In fact, just like the previous season (and most of his career), he was the only weapon on the offense.

    The five-time Pro Bowler turned 29 years old this offseason and likely has just one or two more elite years left in his career. His last hope at that elusive Super Bowl ring hinges on rookie Teddy Bridgewater developing—quickly—into one of the game's elite quarterbacks.

     

    9. Richard Sherman, CB, Seattle Seahawks (+) (11)

    There is no player in professional sports who is better at talking the talk and walking the walk than Richard Sherman. There's no denying that he is one of the most polarizing players in the game.

    Sherman has played just three years, but he's already considered to be among the league's top shutdown corners over the last two decades. In 2013, he surrendered just two touchdowns while intercepting eight passes. His 36.2 passer rating allowed ranked first in the NFL.

    But he stepped up his game to an otherworldly level in the postseason. He allowed just two completions on seven pass attempts in three postseason games. Those completions went for a measly 10 yards.

    He also provided arguably the signature play of the entire NFL season, deflecting a pass from Colin Kaepernick intended for Michael Crabtree in the final seconds of the NFC championship game. The pass, which was intercepted by linebacker Malcolm Smith, is probably the most memorable play in the history of the Seahawks' franchise (except for maybe Marshawn Lynch's "Beast Mode" run). 

    Sherman is the best player on the best team in the NFL and he's certainly not shy about sharing his opinions with the rest of the world. At just 25 years old and just entering the peak of his career, Sherman is revolutionizing the cornerback position before our very eyes. His potential is completely unlimited.

     

    8. Darrelle Revis, CB, New England Patriots (9)

    Make no mistake: Revis still has the it factor that made him the league’s top shutdown corner over the last half-decade, and one of the best ever. 

    In fact, he ranked as the top cornerback in the NFL in 2013, per Pro Football Focus. He ranked first in yards per cover snap (0.72) and second in coverage snaps per reception (16.4). He did all of this less than a year removed from a torn ACL. By his own admission, he played the 2013 season at less than 100 percent health.

    As far as one-year rentals go, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers got every penny’s worth from cornerback Darrelle Revis in 2013. Revis has been surpassed by Richard Sherman as the game’s top cornerback in the eyes of many (not me) and in turn, it’s actually caused Revis to become underrated.

    The difference between Revis and Sherman is that Revis can shadow an opponent's best receiver all over the field. He's capable of shutting down a Dez Bryant, Calvin Johnson or whoever else he is called upon to stop. But Sherman only covers the left side of the field. He's dominant, but he can't shadow players all over the field. He's the best player on the best defense in the NFL, but he's not asked, or able, to do as much as Revis.

    Just 29 years old, Revis is one of the most important players in the NFL in 2014. Now on the New England Patriots on what could be a one or two-year deal, Revis is still young enough—and talented enough—to essentially cash on a final massive contract. Just as rival Richard Sherman was the best player on the best team in the NFL in 2013, Revis will look to do the same with the Patriots this season.

     

    7. Andrew Luck, QB, Indianapolis Colts (+) (45)

    There's a big dropoff between the game's four elite quarterbacks and Andrew Luck. That gap will likely not exist one year from now.

    Just 24 years old, Luck has everything you'd want in a franchise quarterback. He's big, strong, fast, accurate, incredibly intelligent and a natural-born leader. He's the best player on what is quietly one of the worst rosters in the National Football League. He's the sole reason why the Colts have reached the postseason in each of the past two seasons.

    He led the Colts to 11 victories in 2013 despite a brutal running game, his top wide receiver suffering a midseason torn ACL, a bottom-five offensive line and a weak defense. His performance in the wild-card round of the postseason was a thing of epic proportions. Despite throwing three interceptions, Luck led the Colts back from a 38-10 deficit to a 45-44 victory, the second-largest comeback in NFL postseason history.

    Take away Luck and the Colts have had absolutely no business playing in the postseason in each of the last two seasons. Just imagine Luck in Chip Kelly's offense, or Luck throwing to Demaryius Thomas, Julius Thomas and Wes Welker, or Luck handing off to Marshawn Lynch, backed by the best defense in the game. He's already asked to do so much, basically everything, in the Colts' offense. For a young quarterback to accomplish what Luck has done is virtually unheard of throughout history.

    My expectations are through the roof for Luck. He's a top-10 player in the NFL after just two seasons. He showed significant improvement from his first to second season. How good will be he next season? How good will he be in five years?

    I expect Luck to be an MVP candidate every year for the next decade, possibly longer. I expect every team he plays on for the next decade to be a Super Bowl contender. I think he's the next Peyton Manning. Perhaps even better.

     

    6. Calvin Johnson, WR, Detroit Lions (6)

    Without question, Calvin Johnson is the most physically gifted wide receiver in the National Football League. He may be the most physically gifted receiver in league history. He's big, strong, fast and virtually unstoppable.

    Calvin Johnson set the bar so high in 2012 (single-season record 1,964 receiving yards) that a year like the one he had in 2013 is actually disappointing by his standards. All he did was catch 84 passes for 1,492 yards and 12 touchdowns despite missing two games with injuries. That's more than 100 yards and almost a touchdown per game.

    Johnson's performance against the Dallas Cowboys in Week 8 is one of the all-time great single games in league history. Johnson caught 14 passes for 329 yards, including an 87-yard touchdown. His final reception, a 22-yarder down to the one-yard line in the final seconds, set the stage for Matthew Stafford's game-winning touchdown sneak.

    Expect Johnson, who's still just 29 years old, to be one of the league's most feared players for at least five or six more seasons. He's been the focal point of the entire Lions offense for the past few years, so the offseason additions of Golden Tate (free agency) and Eric Ebron (draft) should result in fewer double teams for Johnson. What does that mean? More yards and more touchdowns.

     

    5. Tom Brady, QB, New England Patriots (-) (1)

    It was a pretty frustrating year for Tom Brady and the New England Patriots. As always, they won the division title and their 12 regular-season victories earned them the AFC's No. 2 seed.

    But Brady posted his worst statistical season since 2006, throwing for 4,343 yards but just 25 touchdowns and a passer rating that was only slightly higher than league average.

    Things weren't easy with Wes Welker in Denver, Aaron Hernandez in prison and Rob Gronkowski suffering yet another major injury. Brady's receivers dropped 53 passes, the second-highest total in the league.

    But you get the feeling that Brady could and should have done a little bit more, especially in the AFC championship game when the Patriots bowed out against Peyton Manning's Broncos without even putting up a fight.

    The clock is ticking on the end of the Belichick and Brady era and whether it ends with a fourth Super Bowl title remains to be seen. The big question in New England right now is whether Brady suffered just a down year or if the two-time MVP is beginning his gradual decline.

     

    4. Drew Brees, QB, New Orleans Saints (4)

    Before 2008, only one quarterback in the history of the National Football League had thrown for more than 5,000 yards in a season. Over the last six seasons, Drew Brees has accomplished the feat four times. That includes each of the last three seasons.

    Drew Brees's 68.6 completion percentage, 5,162 passing yards, 39 touchdowns and 104.7 passer rating were typical numbers for a quarterback who basically posts MVP numbers each year. His 12 interceptions were the most impressive aspect of his season, as he tied a career-high with his 1.8 interception percentage.

    He also led the Saints to an impressive road victory in the wild-card playoff game against the Philadelphia Eagles before falling victim to the best defense the NFL has seen in years in the divisional round.

     

    3. J.J. Watt, DE, Houston Texans (7)

    J.J. Watt is the best defensive player in the National Football League and it's not even close. He's the modern version of Reggie White or Deacon Jones. He's a defensive end capable of playing anywhere on the defensive line, a player frequently double and even tripled-teamed by opposing offenses.

    He's well-established as a monster in the pass rush but he's just as dominant against the run. He basically doesn't have a weakness on the football field.

    Like Megatron, Watt set the bar so high for himself in 2012—collecting 20.5 sacks and 16 batted passes—that his 2013 season was viewed as a disappointment by some. That shouldn't be the case at all. Although his sack total dropped to 10.5 and he knocked down just six passes, his production goes well beyond the stat sheet.

    Take his game against the St. Louis Rams in Week 6. The Rams stopped Watt, as much as any team can stop him, but they also focused their entire offensive game plan on the other side of the field from the reigning Defensive Player of the Year. That won't happen in the future with Jadeveon Clowney on the Texans. The addition of Clowney will only make Watt more disruptive.

    His potential is completely unlimited. He's going to challenge for the league lead in sacks every year for the next decade. There's absolutely nothing he cannot do on a football field. He is as close to a perfect football player as there is on the planet. He has a legitimate chance to end up as the greatest defensive player in league history.

     

    2. Aaron Rodgers, QB, Green Bay Packers (2)

    On the Aaron Rodgers level of success, the 2013 season was nothing but a big disappointment. That's how high the game's second-best quarterback has set the bar.

    For starters, Rodgers missed seven games due to a broken collarbone. He returned in the season's final game, where he led the Packers to a victory over the Chicago Bears to capture the division title. His final pass, a 4th-and-8 bomb to Randall Cobb in the final minute, is probably the most clutch pass of his career.

    But the postseason ended with yet another disappointing loss to the San Francisco 49ers. Although Rodgers played well, he was once again outplayed by Colin Kaepernick.

    It's been three straight seasons for Rodgers without a deep postseason run. He's so dominant statistically, holding the all-time record for passer rating, touchdown-to-interception ratio and adjusted yards per pass attempt, that he's entered into the Peyton Manning or LeBron James territory. Anything he does in the regular season is almost worthless unless he wins another championship. It's not fair but that's how it works when you're one of the best ever.

     

    1. Peyton Manning, QB, Denver Broncos (3)

    Peyton Manning isn't just the best player in the National Football League right now. He might be the greatest player this league has ever seen.

    The 2013 season may be the best Manning has ever played, and that's simply incredible for a 37-year-old who many thought was done his NFL career just two seasons ago. Manning threw for 5,477 yards and 55 touchdowns, both all-time single-season records. He led the Broncos to an insane 606 points, an average of 38 per game. He earned his fifth regular season Most Valuable Player award, which is one more than every other active player in the league combined.

    His disappointing performance in the Super Bowl was his only blemish on a near-perfect season, but in fairness, there's no quarterback in the sport, perhaps ever, who could have beaten the Seattle Seahawks during Super Bowl XLVIII.

    It's unclear how many years Manning has left in his career but at this point, every additional year he provides is something special. He's shown no signs of slowing down at an age when most players have been out of the league for a number of seasons.

    For what it's worth, I've ranked Manning second or third among quarterbacks for each of the last five seasons. This year, he vaulted to the top of the rankings, not just at quarterback, but in the entire National Football League.