With the 2011 NFL season just around the bend, we look forward, as we always do, to big plays. We're trained that way. We want to see the big touchdown throw, the acrobatic toe-tapping catch on the sideline, the stutter-step around left tackle to break a long run.
Think that has something to do with why the NFL has changed so many rules to favor the offenses?
No matter, we play with the hand we're dealt. It just so happens the rules committee has dealt a stacked deck for offenses. Now, we have the pleasure of watching big plays on a week-to-week basis.
Of course, I could go on and on about how this has helped the NFL in sales of jerseys, even all the way down to the promotion of NFL Red Zone, a channel specifically designed to bring you those big plays.
Instead, I'll just go on and on about the guys who make those big plays. These are the best playmakers for every NFL team.
We start with one of the biggest no-brainers on the list. Not because he's that good...well, he is that good. There's just no one else on the roster even worth mentioning here.
Fitzgerald is one of the two or three best playmaking receivers in the game. Despite quarterback woes that would have left any other wide receiver's stat sheet in shreds, Fitzgerald still managed to put up 90 catches for 1,137 yards and six touchdowns. Of course, this ended his streak of three consecutive seasons with double digit touchdowns, but he actually had a higher per-reception average than the year before.
The elite receiver publicly pushed for his team to trade for Kevin Kolb, and now that he has his wish, the two are hoping that the marriage is mutually beneficial.
Only after four years of playing second fiddle to LaDainian Tomlinson in San Diego did Michael Turner finally get his chance to make it happen on a week-to-week basis in the NFL.
Once he got his shot, he took the handoff and never looked back. Twice since 2008, Turner has led the league in carries. He's not just getting the ball a lot, he's making things happen with it. In his three years with the Falcons, he has totaled 3,941 rushing yards, 39 rushing touchdowns and 4.4 YPC.
Although he doesn't offer much in the passing game, he is the quintessential feature back. The hope is that he can hold up after the pounding he has taken in the past three seasons with 888 carries since joining the Falcons, far and away the most carries for any one back in that span.
Some might argue that this spot belongs to Ray Rice, but these are 2011 predictions, not reflections on past performance. That being said, Flacco has gotten better every year, throwing for more yards, more touchdowns and fewer interceptions every year.
He has been consistent all the while, throwing for 60 percent completions or more every year since his rookie year in '08.
With a solid defensive core still in tact and weapons like Anquan Boldin and Rice on the offensive side of the ball, there's a good chance those numbers will continue to improve.
Stevie Johnson became the ninth player in NFL history (per Pro Football Reference) to record 80-plus receptions, 1,000-plus yards, and 10-plus touchdowns in his third year. Johnson is the first guy to do it completely out of nowhere, though, as he had just 12 career receptions for 112 yards and two touchdowns in his first two years combined.
Impressive. As Adam Dobrowolski of Cold, Hard Football Facts points out, though, "only [Antonio] Freeman replicated a 80-1000-10 season in his career, although Winslow, Johnson, Ochocinco and Gates came close several times."
DeAngelo Williams had a remarkable three-year run from '07 to '09, rushing for over five yards per carry in all three seasons. '08 was clearly the best of those three seasons, as he rushed for 1,515 yards and 18 touchdowns.
The questions around his future, though, are plentiful. Can he return to the greatness of those three years after an injury-plagued season in '10? Will he overcome those injuries at all? Can he overcome the built-in hurdle of taking hand-offs from a rookie signal caller?
Something tells me he can do it, and something tells me the Panthers brass is confident in him, as well. Perhaps it has something to do with that massive contract he just signed. I don't know.
He did, however, look pretty darn good in the preseason on limited carries. He had over 4.7 yards per carry, albeit on just 12 handles. We'll have to wait to see if he can do it on a consistent basis.
Hester has yet to realize his maximum potential at receiver, and who knows if he ever will. It would be just a crime to leave him off this list, though. He was a statistical giant in his first and second years, setting a rookie record for return touchdowns, punt return touchdowns in a game (2) among many other accolades.
That giant went to sleep from 2008 until Week 3 of 2010, when Hester returned a punt for a touchdown against the Packers and never looked back, averaging 17.1 yards per punt return. Hopefully in his second season in Mike Martz's offense, he can make strides. That may not happen buried on the depth chart below Johnny Knox and Roy Williams.
This was a tough call for me to make. I almost handed the honor to A.J. Green, but rookie wide receivers are so rarely a big impact for their team, that I was swayed by experience, even if it's not flashy experience.
No, at 3.5 yards per carry in two of the last three seasons, Benson's not explosive by any means. He's solid, efficient when he needs to be, and he can score touchdowns. He has 14 in the past two seasons combined. That being said, his propensity to put the ball on the ground could hurt him.
He has totaled 116 first downs in the past two years, as well, so even if he's not breaking big gains, at least he's helping to move the chains. And that's enough to make him the best playmaker on the Bengals offense.
Because really, who else would it be?
Duh, he won the cover of Madden '12. You don't get that distinguished honor without making some big-time plays. Typically, you don't get that honor period if you're wearing a Browns uniform, but Hillis' 1,654 total yards and 13 total touchdowns helped him buck that trend.
He averaged 4.4 yards per carry, not a dazzling number, but far from shabby. At 5.2 yards per touch, an offense that gets the ball into his hands consistently will be a success.
The West Coast Offense that Pat Shurmur has implemented will maximize his effectiveness per carry but passing to set up the run, and will also find ways to get him involved in the passing game. The Browns' offense and Peyton Hillis are both in line for a big 2011 campaign.
There is a lot of talent to choose from in the Cowboys offense. Tony Romo, Felix Jones, Miles Austin, Dez Bryant, but somehow, Witten finds a way to stand out from the group and consistently contribute big numbers.
He has averaged over 10.5 yards per catch every year since his second year in the league, and actually had the most receiving touchdowns (9) of his career with Tony Romo missing over half the season. That kind of success can't be attributed to anyone but himself.
Witten has also reeled in over 90 catches for over 1,000 yards in each of the past three years. Now, with his old friend Romo back under center, it looks like he could have yet another great season for the Cowboys.
Brandon Lloyd had such a stellar 2010 season that he landed 58th on the NFL Network Top 100 list. He reeled in 77 passes for 1,448 yards and 11 touchdowns, nearly doubling his career high in yards and touchdowns along the way.
Playmaker? I think 18.8 yards per reception speaks for itself.
6'5". 246 pounds. No wonder they call him "Megatron." With a 4.35 40-second dash, he is the very definition of uncoverable.
Calvin Johnson has gotten it done for four years, and with also ran quarterbacks like Jon Kitna, Shaun Hill, Daunte Culpepper and others, there's no reason to believe he can't do it with the future of the franchise, Matthew Stafford throwing the pigskin.
He will rank 11th on the active yards per reception list (15.5) when and if the retirements of Joey Galloway and Randy Moss become official. He already ranks eighth in active yards per game with 69.9. Those are hard numbers to ignore.
But the harder numbers to ignore are the first ones I mentioned. 6'5", 246 pounds of a fast, physical, uncoverable receiver. "Megatron" indeed.
With all due respect to Greg Jennings as one of the best playmaking receivers in the game, Aaron Rodgers is the veritable engine that makes the Packers offense go. His career 2.0 interception percentage is the best among active quarterbacks—this includes Tom Brady (2.2) and Peyton Manning (2.7).
What's more, he ranks fifth among active QBs in touchdown percentage (5.4) and completion percentage (64.4). What's more, his 7.9 yards per attempt is the second-highest in the league among active quarterbacks. Those efficiency stats and many others make him one of the most lethal quarterbacks in the league, a threat to make a big play happen from anywhere on the field.
His numbers dipped last year, but that was with him missing a game and almost completely missing another game when he was injured in the first half.
The Packers are one of very few teams (barring the 49ers) that have smoothly transitioned from one franchise quarterback to another without a hitch.
The thought crossed my mind to put Arian Foster in this spot, but one look at Johnson's numbers convinced me otherwise. With five Pro Bowls and two first-team All Pro selections, Johnson has been at it for a long time and put up league-leading receiving yards in back-to-back seasons in '08 and '09, recording over 1,500 yards each year.
One thing he hasn't done yet is put up double digit touchdowns. Johnson has lingered just below the magic 10 the past four years, but that hasn't made him any less of a threat or any less effective as a receiver. As a testament to that, he's averaged over 90 yards per game the past four years.
Well, this is a strange sight.
The argument for years has been that Peyton Manning single-handedly makes the Colts a good team. Without him, many think the Colts wouldn't even be a playoff team. That argument will be put to the test this year, as it appears he will start the season on the sideline, nursing a nagging neck injury.
Manning's numbers since his rookie season have been startling from a volume perspective, with only one season under 4,000 passing yards since that rookie year. He ranks second among active quarterbacks in touchdown percentage (5.5) and third among active QBs in completion percentage (64.9).
Manning's effect on the Colts' entire team can't be understated. His quick score ability allows the defense to fly around to make plays.
The Jaguars have never had a terribly effective offense, but have always had an incredibly effective running back. Maurice Jones-Drew gets it done every which way. Quick cuts, bowling over defenders, and though his height might suggest he could even squeak through an opponent's legs, I've yet to see it.
His numbers are nothing to joke about. He has never averaged below four yards per carry, and has really taken his role as the feature back in stride, putting up 86.9 yards per game in '09 and 94.6 yards per game last season. His touchdowns took a hit, as he totaled just seven from scrimmage, but he was still incredibly effective overall.
It must be scary for Jacksonville fans to think what this offense would be like without him. It must be even scarier for opposing defensive coordinators to think what this offense would be like if they actually had a quarterback.
A former third-round pick, Charles has been a force in the NFL since his rookie year. At least, from a yards-per-carry perspective. So he only carried the ball 67 times in 2008 as a rookie, but he averaged 5.3 YPC.
He reached full speed more than a handful of times in 2010, too, rushing for over 6.4 YPC on 230 handles.
The scariest thing for other teams in the AFC West is that his numbers have gotten better every year over the course of his career.
By his own standards, Brandon Marshall had a down year in 2010, reeling in below 100 passes for the first time since his rookie year. Of course, that was to be expected in his first year in a run-heavy offense, but the Dolphins have every reason in the world to give Marshall the opportunities he's looking for this year.
The 2011 NFL preseason was very kind to Marshall, as he pulled in seven catches for 139 yards and a touchdown for a 19.4 yard per reception average. If he can carry over even some of that success to the regular season, he will really open things up for the rest of Miami's offense.
No chance this could have been anyone else.
52 touchdowns in four years. If that isn't enough for you, four consecutive seasons over 1,200 yards and 4.4 yards per carry.
That's all you need to know. This guy is a big play waiting to happen every time he gets his hands on the ball, and appropriately was named No. 3 on the NFL Network's Top 100 Players list.
The only knock against him was his ball security, having coughed up 20 fumbles in the first three years of his career. Just like his running style, he switched directions on a dime and had just one fumble in 2010. Then, he proceeded to use his other trademark feature of bowling over the opponent with 12 touchdowns and a 4.6 YPC average.
Peterson will surely be an even bigger piece of the offense as the Vikings integrate rookie quarterback Christian Ponder into the offense.
Casual fans will marvel at the volume stats Brady put up in 2010—3,900 yards, 36 touchdowns, four interceptions—as proof of his excellence. Brady's strong point, though, has always been his efficiency. His 0.8 percent interception ratio was the NFL record for a quarterback with over 250 attempts in a season.
Likewise, his 7.3 touchdown ratio was the league record last year.
We always hear that Tom Brady is what makes the offense go—and I think we've safely put to bed the notion that he's a "system quarterback" with these stats that show laser-like levels of precision and efficiency.
With Aaron Hernandez and Rob Gronkowski coming off breakout rookie campaigns, and with Wes Welker now a full year removed from reconstructive knee surgery, Brady is poised for another great season.
Leading the league in completion percentage two years running is incredible, especially in setting a league record in '09 with 70.6 percent of his passes completed. He has thrown for over 65 percent completions in the past four consecutive years, and that was with the Saints going just 7-9 and 8-8 the first two of those years.
Brees has remained effective all the while, but also lethal. He makes big plays happen all the time; his arm strength gives him quick score ability, and though he ranks eighth among active QBs in yards per attempt (7.3), he isn't renowned for that.
What he's most renowned for is the sheer volume of his yards and throws. He has thrown for over 4,300 yards each of the past five years, and led the league in both completions and attempts in '07 and '08. His ability to put the team on his back and carry them to victory is what makes him one of the best quarterbacks in the NFL today.
Hakeem Nicks has had a hot start to his NFL career, with 126 receptions for 1,842 yards and 17 touchdowns. He has made for match-up nightmares across the NFL, and to show his consistency in that regard, he only has one game of double-digit receptions. It's production that you can expect on a consistent basis. He also minimizes mistakes, having dropped only six passes in 2010.
Whether Eli throws 25 interceptions again or not, Nicks has a chance to be another one of those third-year wonders at wide receiver.
Holmes was to the New York Jets what Mariano Rivera has been to the New York Yankees for almost two decades. He closed out several games with a big catch. An overtime catch on the road against the Detroit Lions put the team in position for the winning field goal. He had a touchdown catch in the final minute of play for a game-winning score against the Houston Texans and an overtime touchdown catch on the road against the Cleveland Browns.
He also had key touchdown catches in two of New York's three playoff games. The Jets needed to hang onto Santonio, and they knew it. And they did it.
Only last year did Darren McFadden begin to scrape the surface of the potential that caused the Raiders to take him with the fourth pick in the '08 draft.
Sure, he was very effective as a running back with 5.2 yards per carry and 1,157 yards on the ground. An underrated aspect of his game, though, was his contributions out of the backfield. Adding his 47 receptions for 507 yards, he totaled 1,664 yards from scrimmage and 10 touchdowns, averaging 6.16 yards per touch.
McFadden was a big part of the Raiders huge turnaround from below 200 points scored to over 400 points scored as a team.
Forget the "dream team," DeSean Jackson was a dream for the Eagles from the very first day he stepped onto the field.
I'll certainly be condemned by some Eagles fans who think Vick belongs up here, but Cold, Hard Football Facts' Kerry Byrne already punched a hole in that logic when he pointed out that Vick's astronomic start to the season was quickly put into question by a mediocre finish to the season.
DeSean Jackson, meanwhile, continued to make big plays for the Eagles with 22.5 yards per reception, which led the league in 2010. He scored eight total touchdowns: six receiving, one rushing, and a punt return for a touchdown.
Jackson has never recorded less than 1,000 yards from scrimmage. These are just some of the numbers that contribute to Jackson's selection as the best playmaker on the team. I could go on and on, but that would just get me excited.
Is Roethlisberger really comparable to Manning? At least on some levels, that argument holds true.
One thing both definitely bring to the table is the ability to make a big play happen on their own. Manning does it with quick reads and a quicker release, while Roethlisberger does it with physical ability, scrambling, and backyard antics that are reminiscent of BrettFavre in his "like a kid out there" days.
He is already tied for the 13th-best single season in league history in yards per attempt, with 8.9 YPA. What's more, he has moved into a four-way tie for fourth place on the all-time chart for YPA with an even 8. He's the youngest among the active quarterbacks in the tie, at just 29 years old, and his back-to-back seasons over 8 YPA suggest that he is in line to move higher on that list in the near future.
Some of you may look at the selection of a quarterback as a cop-out. There are so many "playmaking" quarterbacks in the NFL these days with all the rules changes that so heavily favor them and the passing game.
The numbers don't lie, though. Rivers holds a piece of the four-way tie for fourth all-time in career pass yards per attempt (8.0) and has been a lightning rod (pun intended) for big plays as of late, leading the league in yards per attempt three years running.
He doesn't get by on the talent of his receivers, either. The Chargers were crippled with injuries at the position last year, but Rivers made do with what he had and completed over 10 passes to 13 different receivers. That's quite an accomplishment, even in today's NFL.
A wide receiver like Michael Crabtree may be the sexy pick here, but Gore is the classy pick.
He has been a mark of consistency throughout his NFL career, never once falling below four yards per carry. He has over 1,300 yards from scrimmage every year since his second year, and has been continually productive despite erratic play at quarterback.
With that in mind, and with Alex Smith still at the helm of the 49ers offense, the expectation on this end is that Gore will continue to be the key cog in that offense.
The decision came down to Rice or Mike Williams. I made my decision when I realized that coming off hip surgery, with just 6 games played in the season and just 17 receptions, Rice had as many touchdowns as Williams had in an entire season (albeit his first in two years).
Although Rice had a very average season from a volume perspective, it wasn't all bad for him in 2010. He was still able to average 16.5 yards per catch, and the fact that he was still effective even after that surgery is indicative that he could return to his 2009 form in 2011.
That could be the case even if Seattle's quarterback situation doesn't stabilize.
There hasn't been a lot of greatness on the field since the Greatest Show on Turf split up like The Beatles only without the Ono. In terms of playmaking ability, Jackson isn't a threat to score every time he touches the ball like, say, Adrian Peterson or Chris Johnson.
What he is, though, is deadly consistent. He has over 1,000 yards every season except his rookie year, and led the league in yards from scrimmage in 2006 with 2,334. The only concern is that 2010 was his first year below four yards per carry since he came into the league.
The presence of Sam Bradford to take some of the pressure off of Jackson should be of help, and the presence of Josh McDaniels as the offensive coordinator may mean Jackson will be utilized more in the passing game. Both could bode well for a running back who just keeps plodding forward, proving himself not to be deadly, just deadly consistent.
Rookie wide receivers rarely make a huge impact. That's why, when fourth-round pick Mike Williams hauled in 65 passes for 964 yards and 11 touchdowns, the league took notice.
With 16 games worth of tape out on him, Williams might see a dip in production in 2011. Or he could be in line for another big season at the assistance of third-year signal caller Josh Freeman.
2011 will be an interesting season for the Buccaneers one way or the other.
There's no playmaker even close to Chris Johnson's status on the Titans roster. He is a playmaker, undoubtedly proven by his breakout rookie campaign and 2,006-yard 2009 season.
He's also the only player in the NFL whose contract is based not on his position, but his status as a "playmaker" for the Titans offense. Rightfully so; his career average of 5 YPA is proof that anytime he gets his hands on the ball, he's a threat to score. If that weren't proof enough, he already has 38 total touchdowns in his three-year career to date.
The burden of the offense will fall even more on his shoulders in 2011, with either veteran Matt Hasselbeck or Jake Locker starting for the team.
As weird as I felt about putting a rookie on the list, I feel only slightly less weird about putting a second-year player on the list. After all, what kind of track record does Armstrong have besides his rookie year? That being said, this name could easily be "Tim Hightower" by the end of the season, but that's another story.
Still, Armstrong deserves a great deal of respect for making the impact he did as a rookie free agent in 2010 with a team where the wheels came off early and never got back on track. He averaged 19.8 yards per catch, hauling in 44 passes for 871 yards and three touchdowns.
This is based more on his potential than his performance, but hey, this is "2011 predictions" after all.