60.) Greg Jennings, Wide Receiver, GNB
As stated during the write-up for his teammate Nick Collins, “It is ridiculous how quickly the landscape of the National Football League can change.”
It was just two seasons ago that Greg Jennings was universally considered an elite receiver for the plays he made after the catch, which usually resulted in touchdowns. This season he was as good as ever, but because he didn’t produce the touchdowns, suddenly he escaped the minds of many people. What was worse is that players he was clearly better than were being considered better simply because of more exposure.
Everybody has begun to talk up Aaron Rodgers, but with all due respect to him, Jennings was an excellent receiver before Rodgers was throwing to him. I mention Aaron Rodgers because Greg Jennings made Rodgers’ job a lot easier than people realize.
If you don’t think Jennings is an elite receiver then take an in-depth look at the coverages that Rodgers has to read.
These coverages are a lot easier than they should be for a quarterback of his caliber because Jennings draws coverages akin to what guys like Reggie Wayne or Andre Johnson draw. In doing so he opens up one-on-one's for other receivers; hence the five other receivers on the Packers’ roster who contributed significantly last year.
Despite drawing so much coverage, Jennings still showed the world why he is an elite receiver who can take over games. He posted another 1,000 yard season and posted eight total games of over 80 yards receiving when you include the post-season.
With Jennings you get a double edged sword. He is a match-up nightmare which something only a few other receivers can say.
If you believe that you can neutralize him with just your starting cornerback than he will burn you. More importantly he will make the clutch catch like he did all throughout the 2007 and 2008 seasons.
On the other hand if you choose to roll coverage Jennings’ way, than you get one-on-one man coverage against Donald Driver and the remainder of the Packers’ receivers.
If you still don’t think Greg Jennings is an elite receiver than I urge you to look at the post-season game against the Cardinals.
Jennings solely kept the Packer passing attack in the game with his ridiculous catches and the coverages being rolled his way. His endzone catch with one hand would have been talked about for weeks if he was a bigger name like he should be.
Despite all of the arguments made for Jennings thus far, none of them are the most impressive aspect of his game.
What’s most impressive about Jennings? you may ask…
Well Greg Jennings has never had more than 140 targets in a season. Despite this he has two straight 1,000 yard seasons to his name as well as two nine-touchdown seasons to his name in just four short years.
If the Packers' offense wasn't so loaded with talent, Jennings would be a triple crown possibility.
59.) Donovan McNabb, Quarterback, WAS
Regardless of which side you have taken during the McNabb trade debate, you have to admit that he is still one of the better quarterbacks in the National Football League.
If you have read anything that I have written in the past, then you know how strongly I support elite veterans due to how proven they are. I advocate that elite players—even as they begin to decline a little—are still every bit as good as their counterparts until there is noticeable decline in their play.
Now even though he is elite, McNabb is not without problems. In fact, I will be the first to acknowledge McNabb’s problems. Alright, perhaps the second after disgruntled Eagles fans.
McNabb has been inaccurate throughout his career and has had a tendency to throw what Eagles fans have termed “worm balls."
While McNabb’s “worm balls” in some big time situations don’t necessarily show up on the stat sheet, what also doesn’t show up on the stat sheet are McNabb’s immeasurable intangibles.
These immeasurable intangibles are one of the major reasons that the Eagles were a consistent threat throughout the previous decade. The intangibles to which I am referring are the ability to extend plays, be a leader on and off the field, make others around you better and be a scrapper.
These four aforementioned intangibles lead to what is an incredibly important aspect of playing quarterback and winning. Whether or not you believe winning is an important aspect of being a quarterback is up for debate, but not here.
Plain and simple McNabb is a winner because of all those traits that he posses. Winners are hard to come by plain and simple. It is this that makes McNabb a top 10 quarterback and a top 100 player.
Sure a lot of what makes McNabb are his intangibles, but McNabb can also make plays where they count in the eyes of others: the stat sheet.
McNabb is an excellent decision maker with the largest amount of interceptions he has thrown in a season being a mere 13 in his first whole year as a starter. For every interception that McNabb tosses, he throws at least two touchdowns, which is a rarity for a player to do over a couple of seasons, let alone a career.
Although McNabb can be praised for his ability to not turn the ball over, some people have criticized him for his lack of ability to get the ball in the endzone. To that I merely point them to the lack of talent surrounding him at the skill positions throughout his career.
McNabb has only had a top 15 receiver—statistically—for three seasons in his career. In those three seasons he threw or ran for 83 total touchdowns and only turned the ball over 41 times.
For all of the reasons listed above I expect Donovan McNabb to succeed in Washington, although most former Eagles have failed in the Nation’s capital. In fact, it’ll be interesting to see what he will do with an intelligent and balanced passing attack and a coach who knows situational football.
58.) Champ Bailey, Cornerback, DEN
Champ Bailey’s career is astounding.
He has always been considered generation Y’s premier coverage corner and that has been true. In effect he is to us what “Night Train” Lane was to our grandparents and what Deion Sanders was to our parents.
The thing is that when one looks at footage of these players one realizes that Bailey isn’t as “good” as these other two. This may be true but it is quickly amended by the fact that Bailey plays in a much tougher era for cornerbacks.
Champ Bailey represents what it means to be a generation Y cornerback to the fullest.
While Bailey may no longer be the best cornerback in the league, the fact that he still manages to be top five is bewildering.The cornerback position constantly sees new entrants with one great year of coverage metrics making claims to enter the top 10 but a lot of them fall off. That is what makes Bailey’s play over an entire decade so great.
What is crazy is that some could argue that Bailey has gotten better over his career, although he’s allowed more receptions and yards, he allows less touchdowns now than he did during his prime.
What makes Bailey an almost unanimous decision as one of the best cornerbacks in the game still is the fact that he does more than blanket receivers. Bailey is also a playmaker with a natch for locating the ball in the air.
Though Bailey logged two of his three interceptions via quarterback-receiver miscommunication last season, he normally is excellent at jumping routes to either knock the ball down or pick it off.
Bailey has 170 career passes defensed and an additional 46 interceptions over the course of an 11 year career. For those that don’t wish to partake in the math, that means that Bailey averages an astounding 15 passes defensed per season as well as four interceptions per season. Those are numbers that are impressive over a single season let alone an entire career.
I have rattled off all of this information about Bailey’s coverage and his playmaking ability, but have negated to mention one pertinent piece of information. Unlike a lot of other cornerbacks, Bailey hasn’t had a strong defense to help him out for most of his career.
In terms of pass rush production Bailey has only had three teams finish in the top three during his career and yet somehow still managed to maintain strong coverage metrics while predominately playing man coverage.
Why people continue to overlook the greatest corner of our generation is beyond me.
57.) Kerry Rhodes, Free Safety, ARI
How did the Cardinals get so lucky this past off-season?
After releasing Antrel Rolle because he was due a large sum of money that he didn’t deserve, they also lost their star linebacker.
Rather than resting on their laurels, they somehow managed to snag a top 10 safety— when they already had one on their roster—at a much cheaper price. I guess that’s what happens when football personnel start to overrule what is actually happening on the field (i.e. Rex Ryan feeling Rhodes was “too soft” to play in his scheme.)
Rhodes being in Arizona represents one of the very few problems I have with the NFL.
I think it is absolutely ridiculous that proven players that play or have played at an All-Pro level can get traded because they “don’t fit the current scheme.” This is an example of “football politics.”
“Football politics” ruin the game for the fans at times because it allows players to go to teams for unequal value a la Randy Moss to New England in 2007.
With all due respect to Rex Ryan… you are an idiot.
Who cares if Rhodes isn’t “tough” enough or cares a little too much about making it big outside of football?
What I know is that Rhodes is an elite safety who is capable of changing a game and those aren’t easy to come by.
Rhodes has a combination of skills that I can honestly say only three or four other guys at the safety position have at the level at which he uses them.
Rhodes can be an incredibly effective blitzer when utilized that way as evidenced by his nine career sacks. In fact, Ryan’s system was the first year he never recorded a sack. Rhodes is also very good at meeting halfbacks near the line of scrimmage. He has 17.5 career stuffs and hundreds of tackles in the box as both a strong and free safety.
Simply being a playmaker isn’t good enough though to be an elite safety and top 100 player though. There are tons of safeties with interceptions, sacks, tackles, passes defensed, and other pretty paper statistics. What sets the truly great safeties away from them is their ability to perform the original role of the safety, being a last line of defense to an optimal level. Kerry Rhodes does that at a high level.
Rhodes simply does not allow the big play. He doesn’t get beaten on the deep pass as the longest pass he’s allowed since coming onto the map has been 46 yards.
He doesn’t miss many tackles and despite what some slightly bitter Jets fans say is a sure tackler in the open field. I can’t recall a halfback getting past Rhodes in the open field for a touchdown.
Now I’ll be the first to admit that Rhodes does have some off-the-field motivational issues. In case you hadn’t heard he wants to be a model or get involved in Hollywood during his off-seasons.
According to Jets fans this is noticeable when you look at how unmotivated he can be at times. Well, when motivated there is no doubt that Rhodes is an elite player and the change of venue makes me believe he is definitely motivated.
Look out for Rhodes and Adrian Wilson to terrorize the passing attacks in the NFC West next season.
56.) Antonio Gates, Tight End, SDG
What can I say about Antonio Gates that hasn’t been said in the past?
To summarize all things said about him into one lump statement is actually pretty easy. Antonio Gate—without a doubt—has Hall of Fame potential out of the wazoo.
When it is all said and done Antonio Gates might very well be considered the greatest receiving threat at the tight end position to ever play. Not bad for a guy who played collegiate hoops and went undrafted. Even more impressive is the fact that it took him just two short seasons to start playing like an elite tight end.
Few tight ends—if any—in the league bring to the table what Gates does.
I will be the first to admit that there are more complete tight ends in the league. I will even admit that I feel there are two tight ends better than him. Despite this, of the top three tight ends in the league Antonio Gates is the only one that can provide a guaranteed 900-plus yards receiving and an accompanying nine-plus touchdowns. The other guys might put up as many yards but they do not consistently get the ball into the endzone like Gates.
Gates is subject to criticism because he lacks the overall “completeness” of other tight ends. What he lacks in “completeness” he makes up for with his redzone abilities. Sure Gates won’t protect Philip Rivers’ blindside, but he will give him a top 10 redzone threat in this league; and that includes wide receivers.
Gates is essentially a bigger and slightly slower wide receiver with the way he plays. This kind of makes him a quarterback’s best friend.
Gates runs the short and intermediate routes to perfection. He knows where the ball is supposed to go and is almost always there. Gates has leaping ability akin to Larry Fitzgerald allowing him to attack the ball at its highest point. Additionally, Gates also has silky smooth hands that are reliable. All three of these things are what you would want in a great receiving threat, whether it be a receiver or tight end.
Gates’ skill set allows him to do what a lot of other tight ends don’t and line up against cornerbacks. In fact, Gates has lined up against elite cornerbacks in the past. He does not do it as much anymore but he still makes a couple of splash plays while lining up at wide receiver here and there.
In case you did not know, the Chargers now make their living off of the deep-ball and this is possible, not because of the running game, but because of Antonio Gates. Gates draws linebackers and safeties towards him. This allows Vincent Jackson and Malcom Floyd—both of whom are six feet five inches tall —to face one-on-one coverage and enter jump ball situations. Size mismatches downfield are the staple of the current Chargers’ offense and it all starts with Gates.
What I think has been most impressive about Gates is that he has helped developed two of the best quarterbacks in the league. Drew Brees was struggling in his career until Gates emerged. After Brees left the organization Philip Rivers was allowed to utilize Gates as his premier receiver for a few years to help develop his play too.
Gates is truly an elite player and clearly a top 100 player in this league.
55.) Karlos Dansby, Linebacker, MIA
There were a lot of people who did not know who Karlos Dansby was prior to the 2009-10 post-season and that was a shame.
If people still didn’t know who he was, then they found out during the 2010 free agency period as he was the second most talked about player on the market.
As I said earlier. that was a shame because Karlos Dansby has been a top 10 linebacker for the past couple of seasons but few people have realized that because he hasn’t gotten the press that he should have.
Karlos Dansby has everything that you would want in an inside linebacker. He can play sideline to sideline effectively. He can cover very well. He can stuff the run. He can create turnovers and make splash plays. Perhaps most importantly is the fact that Dansby is a leader both vocally and through his play.
Perhaps the reason that Dansby is so adept at making plays all over the field is because he is capable of lining up all over the field.
Over the past five seasons Karlos Dansby has lined up at 4-3 middle linebacker, 3-4 inside linebacker, 4-3 outside linebacker and 3-4 outside linebacker. No other player in the league has done that as often or with as much ease as Dansby has over that period. Perhaps that is why the Cardinals were so capable of effectively running a hybrid 3-4 defense.
A trait that you usually find in elite linebackers, is the ability to sniff out the screen pass. Dansby started showing his ability to do that last year and was arguably the best in the league at it.
Dansby has always been a great coverage linebacker—with the exception of 2008—but last year he took it to another level. Dansby was a stout coverage linebacker who had success against the likes of Vernon Davis, Dallas Clark, John Carlson, Kevin Boss, Jermichael Finley and Visanthe Shianco. All of those tight ends were held considerably below their seasonal averages.
A specific type of coverage that often gets overlooked is the ability to read screen passes. Dansby was excellent at sniffing them out last year. In fact, Dansby was arguably the best in the league at stopping screen passes during the 2009-10 campaign.
In terms of stopping the run, the Cardinals came on strong to start the year as they were ranked in the top five for the first eight weeks of the season. Karlos Dansby was a rather big part of this as he had four stuffs on the early season. As Dansby started to not make as many plays near the line of scrimmage, the Cardinals’ run defense began to take a downturn. Few linebackers can have that kind of impact against the run.
While Dansby didn’t make as many splash plays last season as he normally does, I think we can all remember his latest splash play; the game-winner in the Wildcard Round. I am sure that Dansby will make these kinds of plays in Miami and help turn their defense around; especially with Mike Nolan coaching him up.
54.) Barrett Ruud, Middle Linebacker, TAM
I am sensing a theme for some of these linebackers that I have listed on this list; so far they are all underrated!
Barrett Ruud is absolutely no different from those previously listed, as he is one of the league’s most underrated players regardless of position.
As I’ve said in the past, Brian Urlacher was always thought to be the league’s best coverage linebacker in his prime but never actually was. Barrett Ruud, however, actually has a claim towards that but unfortunately he doesn’t get the recognition that he deserves.
For the first two and a half years that he started in this league, Barrett Ruud was the quintessential Tampa Two middle linebacker.
Ruud played zone coverage in the deep third of the field and if a pass was completed against him it was usually in the hole in the zone a few yards in front of him. Ruud also possessed an ability to maneuver through traffic and make numerous plays near or behind the line of scrimmage despite the fact that he was playing in a Tampa Two. What was most impressive about Ruud’s time in that defense was his man coverage in which he was capable of keeping with halfbacks, receivers and tight ends downfield.
So why is all of this impressive exactly?
Well it is because Ruud has carried his skill set over into Raheem Morris and Jim Bates’ different defensive scheme. There are a lot of Tampa Two linebackers that are just that. When they are taken out of the system or asked to shift to a non-read and react defense they immediately struggle. This doesn’t apply to Ruud however.
As I have said of him in the past Ruud is an actual sideline-to-sideline linebacker that does more than tackle. A “true” sideline-to-sideline linebacker has to also make splash plays along the sidelines. He most definitely was allowed to roam more so than in the past and he showed it last season by making 49 tackles along the sidelines an additional two stuffs and two passes defensed as well.
While he didn’t play up to form last season he still played better than the overwhelming majority of middle and inside linebackers in the league.
Though you wouldn’t expect it from a guy who has been a Tampa Two linebacker most of his career. Ruud is excellent at the point of attack. Whether it be taking on the fullback and moving him aside, or whether it be taking down the ball carrier, Ruud is excellent at making plays in the box. As said last year, Ruud is also one of the best linebackers in the league at dissecting the screen pass and making a play on it.
The Buccaneers defense is young but filled with players all capable of being superstars in this league (Ruud, Jackson, Talib). With all that talent I still believe it is Ruud that will step up to be the vocal and locker room leader. Under Ruud’s leadership I fully expect the Buccaneers’ defense to be a force to be reckoned with year in and year out.
53.) Nick Mangold, Center, NYJ
What Nick Mangold has managed to accomplish in his short career thus far is amazing.
In a position that is universally viewed as not very important, Mangold has managed to shine.
Mangold’s career has been so bright that a considerable amount of people believe that he is the league’s best center. While I disagree about this I would say that Mangold isn’t very far behind the league’s best center and will unanimously assume that position soon.
Though both he and D’Brickashaw Ferguson were first round picks in the same year, it was Ferguson who initially got all of the media attention.
Though this media attention was originally criticism, eventually it turned into praise. Many fans credited Ferguson with the Jets offensive line’s turnaround but it all began with Mangold. While Ferguson initially struggled to succeed in the NFL, Mangold never had a period of adjustment; he was good from day one.
Mangold isn’t the strongest, nor is he the best blocker—pass or run—on the team but he doesn’t have to be. Somehow Mangold manages to transcend all this to be the Jets’ best offensive lineman.
Perhaps Mangold succeeds because of the inherent role that comes with being a center for a team with a strong offensive line. Another argument is that perhaps it is because of the inherent role that comes with playing for an offense that has uniformly had inexperienced quarterbacks.
Mangold knows how to make the proper reads, adjustments and calls already in his young career and this is arguably the most important part of being a center. What makes Mangold so impressive is how quickly he has grasped these concepts.
What takes the average center the majority of a career to find out, Mangold found out in just two or three years. Mangold’s quick mastery of his position is going to make the job of Jets’ quarterback Mark Sanchez worlds easier. Sanchez won’t have to make the blocking adjustments until he is read because Mangold is already fully capable of that.
Over the past two years in which the Jets’ running game has become what many would consider the best in the league, Mangold has most definitely done his fair share of the work.
The Jets’ halfbacks have run behind Mangold the second most times out of all Jets’ linemen; a feat rare for a center. Over that span they have run for nearly 1,000 yards on four-and-a-half yards per carry which is only bested when running Right Guard Trap. The nine touchdowns ran for by the Jets’ backfield are only bested when they run Right Guard Trap as well.
It isn’t just the fact that Nick Mangold is his team’s second best pass blocker. Nor is it just the fact that he is also the league’s best running team’s second best run blocker. It is these aspects in combination with the fact that he has more responsibility than any other Jet offensively and handles it at an elite level too. This makes him one of the best centers in the league and thus a top 100 player.
52.) Jonathan Stewart, Halfback, CAR
I know that placing Jonathan Stewart above his backfield mate DeAngelo Williams will draw criticsm—especially from Panthers fans—so allow me to explain my stance.
I think that I should make it clear that during the 2008-09 campaign I didn’t feel this way. That is how impressed by Jonathan Stewart I was last year.
Prior to last year I felt that Williams was the better of the two. In fact, you can tell as much based on the fact that Williams received my praise as the Offensive Player of The Year award winner. However, as you have probably noted, a common theme on this list is that things have quickly changed over the last year.
While I was watching the “Double Trouble” tandem last season I became enamored with Jonathan Stewart. I felt that he was the better of the two. For some odd reason I went against my normal inclination and have anointed Stewart as the superior back when normally I would not. This placement is simply me standing by my convictions.
Though Williams might be considered the technical “starter” on the Panthers’ roster I don’t feel that he is the better of the two halfbacks given the exact same situations. Even if he is only considered a “power back” by analysts and pundits.
Stewart might not be able to read holes like DeAngelo Williams but he doesn’t have to. While he isn’t a “true power back” like the guys of yesteryear, he is extremely tough to bring down in the box. In fact, he’s one of the five toughest in the league in my opinion.
When Jonathan Stewart doesn’t have to use his power running style he is very capable of emulating DeAngelo Williams. This makes things very easy for the Panthers’ coaching staff.
While most coaching staffs are forced to change their method of play calling when they switch halfbacks the Panthers don’t have to. When Stewart enters the game the Panthers’ coaching staff does not differ their playcall style very much from when Williams is in the game. Stewart can be, and is, utilized like his counterpart Williams. The question is can Williams be utilized like Stewart?
I ask this because Stewart has shown this “power” ability in the redzone way more often than Williams has.
Out of the 19 touchdowns that he has ran for in his short NFL career, 15 of them have been in the opposition’s redzone. Additionally, as stated previously, he is one of the league leaders in broken tackles over the past two seasons.
Last year I commended DeAngelo Williams for taking game over. While Stewart did not take games over in the same way that Williams did it does not mean that he wasn’t a decisive factor in games.
Everybody looks at Matt Moore as what turned the Panthers’ season around but Stewart was equally as important.
In the five games Moore started, Stewart ran for over 100 yards and a touchdown on over four-and-a-half yards per carry in four of them. In the one game that he was held scoreless and below 100 yards the Panthers lost.
When the Fox era is over, if the Panthers decide to go to a one-back system my money is personally on Stewart as the guy to stay regardless of age.
50b.) Jon Beason, Middle Linebacker, CAR
At spot number 83 on this list I talked highly about Panthers linebacker Thomas Davis. I mentioned how Davis was a huge difference maker and the Panthers’ best linebacker last season. That may be true, but while Davis was the better linebacker last season it is clear who the best player on the Panthers’ defense is.
If some of you are still curious as to who it is —though I don’t know why you would be— than the answer is Jon Beason. Jon Beason is the primary difference maker for the Panthers on a regular basis.
Since Jon Beason has arrived in Carolina the attitude of the defense has most definitely changed.
The Panthers’ defense has had a combination of finesse and power from 2007 to the present. This combination hasn’t really been a site in other defenses around the league. This style of play corresponds to this time period because that is when Jon Beason arrived in town.
Regardless of the style of defense the Panthers have played Beason has succeeded.
Whether it is somewhat of an attacking defense where Beason crashed the line or scrimmage, or it a pass coverage defense where he was in coverage, Beason has excelled. This is because Beason is capable of adapting his style of play in order to fit whatever the coaching staff needs. This makes him one of the best linebackers in the league.
In his first season starting Beason was one of the league’s best coverage linebackers.
He was often dropped into coverage rather than playing the run which is a rarity for most middle linebackers. With Beason’s athleticism and his football intelligence he was capable of playing coverage great. Rarely did he ever take false steps and tight ends and wide receivers had very little luck going over the middle against the Panthers. He also made a few of the splash plays with six passes defensed and an accompanying interception.
Beason was so adept at coverage that the Panthers had him do it again in his second season as the team’s middle linebacker. All in all Beason made 49 tackles, nine passes defensed and four interceptions against receivers and tight ends in his first two seasons in the league.
While Beason was already considered a top linebacker what cemented his place for me was the aforementioned ability to shift his play style within the defense.
Some feel he had a “down” year and to a small extent I agree. But that “down” year showed this versatility. The same versatility I’ve praised others for in this very article..
Beason—who had primarily been used in coverage most of his career—showed the ability to play the run. Beason emerged as a strong run defender because that is what was asked of him last season. Beason simply responded by leading all middle/inside linebackers in tackles behind the line of scrimmage.
Despite the turnover of players in front of him look for Jon Beason to shine this year. That is the true mark of an elite linebacker.