The NFL's 100 Best Current Players: Players 80-71

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The NFL's 100 Best Current Players: Players 80-71
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80.) Robert Mathis, Defensive End, IND
As awesome as LaMarr Woodley has been over the past two seasons the fact of the matter is that Robert Mathis still remains the league’s best pass rusher from the defensive strong side of the field.

Why?

Well because Robert Mathis has been providing a thorough and consistent pass rush from the strong side of the field since 2004.

Everybody talks about Dwight Freeney—and rightfully so—but Robert Mathis has been around for all but two years of Freeney’s pro career and has been one heck of a threat opposite of him. In fact, I question why so many people underrate Mathis when he provides a bulrush as devastating as Freeney’s finesse rush?

What makes Mathis’ play across from Freeney so darn impressive over that span is the fact that Mathis—like Woodley—is always rushing from the quarterback’s frontside. Therefore he isn’t afforded the blindside ability of other premier pass rushers. Despite this Mathis has somehow managed to produce 35 forced fumbles over that span; something that seems near impossible.

Mathis’ already incredible numbers become even more impressive when you realize the scarcity of snaps that he has taken over the years.

Mathis only has taken roughly 60 percent of the defensive snaps he has been eligible for since joining the Indianapolis Colts. What this means is that Mathis is the very definition of a “situational pass rusher” and yet he still manages to produce with limited opportunities to do so.

Mathis’ role as a great pass rushing defensive end is amplified when one remembers that he has predominately spent his career in a Tampa Two defense. This means that he was a very integral part of his defenses’ success as he would rarely get help from defensive players beyond the defensive line. Additional to this is the fact that the Colts haven’t exactly had a beast of a player at the nose or under tackle this decade which makes what he and Freeney do even more impressive.

With the lack of help from the nose and under tackle positions one could argue that Mathis has been the Colts front four’s best run defender for the past six seasons. Sure there have been inside guys with a great impact for one or two years but Mathis, despite his spot duties, has been the longest tenured—and thus most consistent—run defender in the Colts front four.

For his career Robert Mathis has averaged 10 sacks, a stuff-and-a-half, five forced fumbles and two passes defensed per season since logging significant snaps in 2004. I think that it is safe to say that his position as the league’s best 4-3 right end is safe for quite some time.

79.) John Abraham, Defensive End, ATL
I know some people may be saying “What is he doing on here? He had a bad season and was outplayed by teammate Jonathan Babineaux!”

To some extent the people stating the above sentiments would be right in that Babineaux did have a better season. Where they are wrong is the fact that John Abraham didn’t have a bad season simply because he didn’t bring down the quarterback as much as he usually does.

Abraham was credited with 39 unofficial pressures as per Pro Football Focus. This placed Abraham with the third most pressures in the entire league.

According to ESPN Abraham was fifth in the NFC South in pressures behind Julius Peppers, Jonathan Babineaux, Will Smith and Charles Grant; four players that had great seasons. ESPN’s numbers are closer to the official pressure totals which lists Abraham with 11. A good season just a few pressures below the elite level.

While a pressure is not a sack that does not mean that it doesn’t result in bad things for the offense the same way that a sack does. A pressure can result in errant throws from the quarterback, a sack by a teammate or totally busted play. In particular I know that there is one Falcons’ defensive back that agrees with me as Thomas DeCoud made a lot of plays on errantly thrown passes caused by Babineaux and Abraham.

Though Abraham started the 2009-10 campaign with a bang to the tune of dominating Jake Long with two bulrush sacks, his ability to seal the deal with a sack disappeared throughout most of the season. Abraham’s lack of sacks, however, is not enough to forget what an accomplished player he is.

In every season that Abraham started all 16 games prior to last year he recorded double digit sacks. In the four seasons in which he did not complete the year he averaged .72 sacks per game. Even with last year’s lack of sacks John Abraham averages 11 sacks per every 16 games in his career.

While I am not trying to compare the two directly I think I can utilize the numbers to put things into perspective; at least from a numbers perspective. Reggie White averaged 13.65 sacks per 16 games throughout his career in comparison to Abraham’s 11.

Abraham is an incredibly underrated player who’s career has been marred by a string of injuries and a lack of effort in run defense. Those things aside he is still one of the best pass rushers that generation Y has gotten to see.


78.) DeMeco Ryans, Middle Linebacker, HOU
I know that earlier I seemed incredibly smitten with another Texans linebacker in Brian Cushing and rightfully so. Though Cushing is very impressive the fact of the matter is that the Texans defense runs through DeMeco Ryans and will for at least the next six seasons with his recent contract extension.

Cushing won Defensive Rookie of The Year honors last season but a lot of people forget that just three years prior DeMeco Ryans did so with an impressive season of his own.

During his rookie campaign Ryans was the very definition of a “sideline-to-sideline” linebacker making around 40 tackles outside of the hashmarks. Since that season Ryans has never looked back and continued to be one of the league’s best defenders patrolling the middle while other players have regressed and disappeared.

I say that Ryans is a force in the middle because that is where he loves to make his plays and usually has during the majority of his career. Ryans has shown an ability to cover over the middle that few others have shown with consistency. When covering a guy over the middle it is easy to lose him and allow him yards after the catch but rarely does that happen when Ryans is in coverage.

In addition to his strong coverage skills Ryans has shown a knack for making plays near the line of scrimmage when the coaching staff asks him to. For instance last year Ryans made seven tackles behind the line of scrimmage and an additional four at the line of scrimmage. All in all he made 70 tackles against halfbacks running the ball last season and only three of them occurred after the player made it past the front seven. Pro Football Focus has him as the leader over the past three years in terms of unofficial missed tackles but watching him shows something otherwise.

What many don’t know about Ryans is that he envisions everything that you want out of a linebacker from his leadership on the field to his leadership vocally. With all the talent on the Texans defense Ryans manages to emerge as the leader not just because he is the middle linebacker but because he is a natural leader.

Next time you get a chance to watch the Texans look away from their high-flying offense for a second and take a chance to see Ryans in action. You’re missing one hell of a show.

77.) Mario Williams, Defensive End, HOU
Although I knew that I would place Mario Williams and DeMeco Ryans in successive slots I had no idea which I would place over the other.

In the end I chose to go with Williams first not because he is the better overall player in my opinion but because he ranks slightly higher at his position than Ryans does at his.

Mario Williams came out during the 2006 NFL draft as one of the most hyped players ever and it wasn’t even because of his own accord. As a result of the Texans selecting him over Reggie Bush with the first overall pick Williams’ expectations were enormous and originally he didn’t live up to them. This was sad because anyone worth their salt in football knowledge knew Williams was the more sound investment with the top overall pick and he showed the world why in his second season. Ever since then Williams has not looked back.

After showing that his first year was just a product of becoming acclimated to the NFL Williams has since shown that he is a lock for double digit sacks. This is so despite the fact that the Texans haven’t found formidable defensive linemen to support Williams. Because Williams is often the only threat on the Texans’ defensive line he is moved around often; a trait that you will not find in many other elite defensive ends.

Williams used to struggle against the run but one could have made the argument that it was because he was attempting to do too much. With the additions of Bernard Pollard and Brian Cushing to the Texans’ defense Williams no longer has to overcompensate for the inadequacies of others. Instead the coaching staff allows him to now merely worry about his assignment and as a result he has gotten better against the run.

Williams is one of those players who got undue hype because of the belief of what their athleticism will allow them to do. As a result people saw production and believed he was doing everything that his athleticism should allow him to do. Williams hasn’t reached that point yet but has made strides every year of his NFL career.

Though Williams isn’t “there” yet he has averaged 17 plays behind the line of scrimmage over the past three seasons. That is essentially a little more than one per game. I am sure that most coaches would take a play behind the line of scrimmage per game.

The thought that Mario Williams is still getting “there” should be scary for 31 other NFL franchises.

The fact that he is finally getting help around him should make that already scary thought even scarier.


76.) Justin Tuck, Defensive End, NYG
It is a shame that people undertake the “what have you done for me lately” mentality when judging NFL players. When people undertake that stance they ignore numerous external factors such as injury, coaching and motivational factors that may have made a player play greatly or badly for the most recent season.

Justin Tuck is a prime example of why a player’s production and play should be considered over more than a one year span. Tuck was injured and unmotivated for the overwhelming majority of the season.

Tuck became very unmotivated last year due in part to the coaching staff just as most of the Giants defense did.

Bill Sheridan called inopportunistic and safe defenses last season and when he did blitz they seemed very ill-conceived. Through the season much of the defense was lost in terms of fervor and it showed in many of their attitudes and play. Justin Tuck was no exception to this though he tried more than others.

Even with all this Tuck still managed to make splash plays.

People often equate a 4-3 defensive ends success with sacks and to an extent that is fair. However, in today’s NFL a 4-3 defensive end should also be able to defend the run and get their hands up against the pass in order to be considered elite. Justin Tuck does all of those things very effectively.

Even with a down year last year it is pretty clear that Justin Tuck is the league’s best run defending 4-3 defensive end.

Tuck is third in the national football league over the past three years with 20 stuffs. What makes it even more impressive is that, unlike the two guys with more stuffs, Tuck has spent time acquiring those numbers from the defensive tackle position. This is a skill that few players possess.

Tuck also displays his diversity in that he loves to get his hands up in the air to defend passes and has done so 13 times over the past three years including a ridiculous eight last season. Additional to this diversity is his ability to force fumbles despite rarely getting the opportunity to rush from the blindside.

As with Robert Mathis and LaMarr Woodley, Tuck usually plays on the strong side of the defense and therefore is at a disadvantage at times to make plays but he still manages to. This playmaking ability is shown in his ability to produce 11 forced fumbles since beginning to log significant play time in 2007.

Tuck only falls down this low in order to avoid backlash but with proper playcalling occurring in New York and a return to health look for Justin Tuck to produce like a top four defensive end.


75.) Clinton Portis, Halfback, WAS
I don’t know why but Clinton Portis has been forgotten by numerous football fans all over the nation.

Alright, I’m lying in saying that I don’t know why because I in fact do. It all comes back to the aforementioned and ridiculous mentality of “what have you done for me lately.”

As a result of Portis being injured last year and several halfbacks emerging with 1,000 yard seasons many people forgot about Clinton Portis. The thing is that forgetting a guy with Portis’ production over his career should be a very hard thing to do.

I don’t care that Portis was injured last season.

I don’t care that Portis has logged a lot of carries and mileage on his body despite only being 28 years old.

I don’t care that he is now in an open competition with two former Pro Bowlers for the starting role in Washington.

Why don’t I care?

I don’t care because Clinton Portis is still a top 10 back in this league until he proves that he isn’t through reasons other than injury.

Portis is a back that has never rushed for less than 1,250 yards in a season in which he completed. I don’t think that people understand how difficult of a feat this is to accomplish.

People are praising these new halfbacks for eclipsing the 1,000 yard mark just once but people ignore that “Doctor Do Itch Big” has done it every healthy year of his career.

Portis has managed to average over 1,700 yards from scrimmage and an accompanying 12 touchdowns in every season of his career in which he remained healthy. Hell, even in Portis’ shortened seasons he averaged 77 yards from scrimmage per game and scored seven touchdowns in one of his shortened seasons.

Now Portis is returning to a Mike Shanahan system where he had his biggest success and as alluded to earlier he is still young.

When you examine the upcoming situation in the nation’s capital next season it looks as if Clinton Portis should return to form.

Donovan McNabb should drop the safeties back into coverage with his playmaking ability and strong arm. Willie Parker and Larry Johnson can spell Portis when he gets tired as one provides speed and the other power. Fred Davis emerged last season preventing two viable options at tight end. With Mike Shanahan utilizing the skill set of these players better than any coach that Portis has had in Washington I see no reason why Portis shouldn’t and won’t return to form.

Since I believe that Portis is going to return to his prime form than I see no reason why he should not be still considered a top 10 halfback and top 100 player in this league.


74.) Jay Ratliff, Nose Tackle, DAL
I know that it is kind of hard to call a current All-Pro and two-time Pro Bowler underrated but Jay Ratliff is indeed underrated.

Ratliff is underrated because people look at his lapses in run defense and his pass rushing athleticism and criticize him for not living up to the traditional zero-technique of a nose tackle.

What many people outside of Dallas do not realize is that he isn’t asked to play the traditional role of a nose tackle. Rather, Jay Ratliff is asked to penetrate a la a three-technique and disrupt the opposition’s passing attack. When he does this it takes away focus from outside linebackers DeMarcus Ware and Anthony Spencer and makes their jobs a lot easier. In the end improving the play of the outside linebackers is one of the primary roles of a 3-4 nose tackle.

Ratliff has been an incredible playmaker ever since he started logging a significant number of snaps in Wade Phillips’ defense in 2006.

As hammered home earlier Ratliff isn’t the prototypical nose tackle. Those guys usually aren’t playmakers themselves but rather filter players through to make the plays for them. Ratliff, however, makes plenty of plays for himself.

Over the past four seasons Ratliff has averaged nine total plays behind the line of scrimmage per season. Over the past two seasons in which Ratliff has really come into his own he has averaged 13.25 plays behind the line of scrimmage per season. The only defensive tackles that have done better over the past two seasons are Kevin Williams and Albert Haynesworth.

It is no coincidence that DeMarcus Ware has emerged as such an elite player in the eyes of many after Ratliff emerged as such a versatile player.

Teams cannot focus on Ware because they have to devote attention to the versatile Ratliff as well. It is for this reason that the Cowboys haven’t needed a strong 3-4 outside linebacker pass rusher opposite Ware with all due respect to Anthony Spencer.

What might be most overlooked about Ratliff’s style of play is that it is more appropriate for today’s NFL.

The traditional 3-4 nose tackle is thought of as a run stopping defender where as Ratliff is viewed as a pass stopping nose tackle. It is no secret that today’s NFL is most certainly moving to a pass-happy league and Ratliff might be the face of a new style of nose tackle to counter this movement. In fact if the league does in fact continue to be pass happy I can guarantee that Ratliff becomes the prototype for the new age nose tackle if he isn’t already.

73.) Brandon Mebane, Defensive Tackle, SEA
While a lot of people do not know who he is, Brandon Mebane is all the rage amongst Seahawks fans and rightfully so.

In fact, Mebane has the attitude and work ethic to be a staple in this league if he would just get some media recognition.

It is easy to look at Mr. Mebane’s overall statistics and assume he is nothing more than an average defensive tackle. Hell, from a statistics standpoint I might even agree. The problem is that most of us realize that statistics only tell half of the story when it comes to football.

The reality of the matter is that Brandon Mebane is both a playmaker—in that he can get sacks and stuffs—as well as a cog/role player.

The thing about cogs and role players is that they usually tend to get no respect in the 4-3 defense. If that same player plays in the 3-4 defense though than they get respect for being a force that occupies double teams. Mebane does just that for the Seahawks and it is evident from the play of their linebacking corp since he arrived in the rainy city.

Lofa Tatupu is an All-Pro caliber player and it is no secret that he had success prior to Mebane becoming a Seahawk. What is a secret though is the percentage of Tatupu’s plays that have come up the middle since Mebane joined the team.

Prior to Mebane’s arrival Tatupu was prone to making plays all over the field. After Mebane’s arrival a lot more of Lofa’s plays came up the gut because it was a lot easier to maneuver through traffic.

If Lofa Tatupu’s success up the middle isn’t enough to sway you than perhaps we can look at David Hawthorne’s success last season.

Hawthorne made most of his plays up the middle and never let a ballcarrier get beyond 10 yards down field. Hawthorne also made 10.5 total plays behind the line of scrimmage in only 11 games started.

With all due respect to Hawthorne—who is probably a good player in his own right—I would be willing to wager that he owed a lot of his success to Mebane.

After all an undrafted second year linebacker doesn’t simply walk into the NFL and play like an All-Pro without significant help.

If I still haven’t managed to sway you into believing that Mebane is the real deal than I present one final argument…

The Seahawks only allowed two 100 yard rushers on the season last year; one was Frank Gore who ran for 200+ yards and the other was Offensive Player of The Year Chris Johnson. The reason the Seahawks had such a bad outing against Frank Gore was because Mebane was absent from that game.

72.) Sheldon Brown, Cornerback, CLE
I don’t care that Sheldon Brown is 31 years old.

I don’t care that he was discontent with this contract for the past two off-seasons.

I don’t care that Sheldon Brown has predominately had hands made of stone throughout his career.

The fact of the matter is that Sheldon Brown is one of the best cornerbacks in this league from a coverage standpoint. You don’t get rid of a player like that for projected draft picks.

To the average or casual NFL fan Sheldon Brown is just an average cornerback. To them you have to be the left cornerback—defensively speaking—and snag a lot of interceptions to be elite. On top of that you need to receive a lot of press from ESPN, the Associated Press and other major sports outlets.

Brown has never received any of that despite the fact that he should have for the overwhelming majority of his career.

No, instead teammates Asante Samuel and Lito Sheppard constantly received the accolades that Brown should have. They got these because they were often playing the left cornerback position and nabbing interceptions off of errantly thrown passes.

While they were doing that in zone coverage Brown was busy locking down receivers in man coverage and preventing them from catching the ball on the other side of the field. In fact, it is because Brown was locking his guys down that opposing quarterbacks were making errant throws to the Eagles’ left cornerbacks.

In terms of consistency Sheldon Brown has been the second most consistent cornerback behind Champ Bailey since becoming a full time starter in 2004.

Metrically speaking, the only people who compare to Brown since 2004 are Champ Bailey and Nnamdi Asomugha. At a position in which the top players fluctuate on a yearly basis it is incredibly impressive for Brown to remain at the top.

Brown is very good at bumping and running and even though he’s not that fast he sticks with his man.

In the post-2003 era the average starting cornerback has trouble providing strong metrics. They usually allow over 60 receptions for over 600 yards and four or five touchdowns. Despite this Brown has consistently remained below those totals.

Brown has usually allowed 40 to 50 receptions for around 350 to 500 yards and two or so touchdowns. Keep in mind that Brown did this in an era where offenses are gifted yardage and did so predominately on an island.

Depending on your football circle you may think Sheldon Brown isn’t worthy of this spot. If you do then I challenge you to find me cornerbacks who are better at coverage than him who should be on this list.


71.) Roddy White, Wide Receiver, ATL
Remember when this guy was a “scrub” who was holding back Michael Vick?

Yeah, I think that we can correctly say at this point in time that it was the other way around.

I think that we can also say that Vick was holding back White’s development with inaccurate throws. Otherwise there is no way to explain how White managed to suddenly emerge in his third year despite immensely bad quarterbacks in Joey Harrington, Chris Redman and Byron Leftwich throwing to him.

What makes White so good is the fact that—at this point in his career—it does not matter who is throwing him the ball because he is going to come down with it.

Over the past three years White has had four different quarterbacks throwing to him and it didn’t affect his production. That is the very definition of an elite wide receiver as they can make the plays regardless of who is trying to get them the ball. What might be most impressive about that three year span of production is the lack of a threat opposite of him until last season.

As it stands White has never been in an ideal situation for an entire season. White has yet to have Michael Turner, Tony Gonzalez and Matt Ryan play alongside him for an entire 16 game season.

It is scary to think what he could do from a production standpoint with the entire Falcons offense remaining healthy.

White has tremendous range and can run every single route in the route tree. Though he has a preference for the right side of the field White has no problem producing on both sides of the field as well as going over the middle. He has incredibly soft hands and doesn’t drop many balls.

What I like most about White is his consistency.

In 17 of his 48 games—or about one-third—over the past three years have been 100 yard games. For 38 of those 48 games White has recorded at least four receptions. Only 11 times has White not surpassed 50 yards in a game during that span. This is all without recognizing the fact that White has only had consistent quarterback play for one season out of those three.

White’s average season over the past three years has been 85 receptions on 149 targets for 56 first downs, eight touchdowns and 1,246 yards. That would be a good single-season for a lot of receivers but to average that over a three season stretch and be as underrated as White is ridiculous.

Continue On To Players 70-61

 

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