The Top 25 Players in the NFL Through the First Quarter of the NFL Season
Who are the best 25 players in the NFL right now with a quarter of the 2011 regular season in the books?
It's a valid question to ask, because the answers will reveal a lot about the current state of the league. You have some of the consistent names appearing on the list that come as little surprise, but it's two other categories of players that are far more interesting.
Who are the newcomers to the list, and what has happened in their development that has allowed them to reach this elite status?
Who are the players that should have made the list, but either aren't quite there or more than likely are disappointing for some reason?
First, there needs to be some ground rules for the top 25. There won't be any kickers or punters on this list. There is no punter or kicker that should be considered among the league's 25 best players unless he is making 90-yard field goals consistently so that his team never has to punt.
Offensive linemen are going to have to be spectacular to make this list, because their success is often measured as a unit instead of as an individual. There will be defensive players on the list, but it will still be dominated by offensive skill players, because defense is somewhat of a lost art in today's NFL.
Some statistics are going to mean more than others. If a receiver has 200 yards receiving, that's OK. If the same receiver has eight touchdown catches, that's special.
That about covers it. Here are the top 25 players at the quarter pole of the NFL season.
25. Sean Lee, ILB, Dallas Cowboys
Did you know that the Dallas Cowboys have the NFL's fourth ranked defense?
Sean Lee, who I mentioned as one of the NFL players most likely to break out in a previous article, is a huge reason why the Cowboy's defense has been good; well, other than when being toasted by Detroit's Calvin Johnson. But, we will broach that subject yet.
Lee, the former Penn State standout, leads the 'Boys in tackles with 35 and has four pass defensed and two interceptions as well.
He is an instinctive, old-school middle linebacker who may not always knock the opposing player silly but will make the play.
24. Jason Pierre-Paul, DE, New York Giants
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Not to toot my own horn here, but Pierre-Paul was another one of the breakout players I had for this season.
OK, so modesty isn't working out well for me.
Seriously, though, the Giants defensive end has 22 tackles, 4.5 sacks, a pass defense and a forced fumble.
He has been a saving grace for a New York team that just got another defensive end, Osi Umenyiora back into action. Umenyiora had two sacks in his debut, a 31-27 victory over the Arizona Cardinals, and if the G-men ever figure a way to get Pierre-Paul, Umenyiora and Justin Tuck (1.5 sacks) on the field at the same time and healthy, then look out.
Pierre Paul has a chance to be the best out of all three players.
23. Johnathan Joseph, CB, Houston Texans
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In 2010, the Houston Texans were dead last in the league against the pass, surrendering 267.5 yards per game.
In 2011, the Houston Texans are 10th in the league against the pass and have allowed 214.2 yards per game.
Having Joseph, an elite shutdown corner, who has also produced two interceptions despite not being targeted, makes all the difference.
22. Troy Polamalu, S, Pittsburgh Steelers
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Polamalu leads the Steelers with 26 tackles. He also has three passes and a sack.
While critics have accused Pittsburgh of getting old, and perhaps they are, the Steelers still have the NFL's second-ranked defense. They have allowed only 630 yards passing in four games, which is far and away the best in the league.
For a league that lives and dies with the forward pass, that's almost incomprehensible, and Polamalu is arguably the primary component in Pittsburgh's success against the league's aerial attacks.
21. Vincent Jackson, WR, San Diego Chargers
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Jackson has 20 catches for 374 yards (18.7 yards per catch) and three touchdowns.
That's while the 6'5" 230 pound wide receiver has been pestered by an abdominal injury.
Jackson made a dynamic 55-yard touchdown catch of a poorly thrown ball by Philip Rivers in a 26-16 victory over Miami.
When the two get completely on the same page, especially with usual primary target Antonio Gates likely out of the lineup, watch out.
20. Matt Forte, RB, Chicago Bears
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The choice for this spot came down to the Minnesota Vikings' Adrian Peterson and Forte.
While ultimately Peterson is a better running back, the guy who is playing better and contributing more of an impact to his team right now is Forte.
Forte has run the ball 60 times for 324 yards (a 5.4 yards per carry average, which is significantly better than Peterson's 4.6 ypc) and a touchdown. Furthermore, Forte has caught 26 passes for 310 yards and a touchdown.
After getting just nine rushing attempts against the Green Bay Packers in a 27-17 loss, Chicago wisely fed the more than willing Forte in Sunday's game against Carolina.
25 carries for 205 yards and a 34-29 Bears' victory.
19. Eli Manning, QB, New York Giants
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Most people either love Eli Manning as a quarterback or they hate him.
Right now, the statistics and the Giants' 3-1 record point to him being one of the 25 best players in the game.
Manning has a 105.6 quarterback rating based on 80-of-125 passes for 1,066 yards and eight touchdowns against two interceptions. While Manning isn't shattering passing records, he is making the most of an offense that saw Kevin Boss and Steve Smith depart and that has an injured Mario Manningham.
When you are helping to make unheralded wide receiver Victor Cruz look like a superstar (11 catches for 225 yards and two touchdowns in basically three games as a reserve), you belong on this list.
18. Matthew Stafford, QB, Detroit Lions
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Honestly, I wasn't a big believer in Stafford when he was the first pick overall in the 2009 NFL Draft out of Georgia.
Part of me still wonders how good Stafford would be if he wasn't throwing to the likes of Calvin Johnson, Brandon Pettigrew, Nate Burleson, Titus Young and Jahvid Best.
Still, he has thrown for 1,217 yards with 11 touchdowns against just three interceptions and has a quarterback rating of 100.3 this year after finally being completely healthy in his NFL career.
The primary reason that he is on this list is that he is the leader of a 4-0 football team and has been the architect of comebacks from deficits of 20 and 24 points in back-to-back weeks.
17. Steve Smith, WR, Carolina Panthers
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A lot of people thought that the Carolina Panthers might move on from this 11-year veteran.
In this case, the team knew best. Smith has enjoyed a career renaissance with rookie Cam Newton at quarterback, and while the 5'9", 185-pound wide receiver may come back down to earth, its hard to argue with 24 receptions for 530 yards (22.1 yards per catch) and two touchdowns.
For comparison, Smith is only 24 yards behind his total for 14 games last season. Smith is currently the NFL's second leading receiver, and with Newton's propensity for winging the ball, he might not stop at being number two.
16. Larry Fitzgerald, WR, Arizona Cardinals
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The heat I feel right now isn't from the blazing Arizona sun, but the surefire criticism coming my way for putting Fitzgerald so low on this list.
Fitz has 23 catches for 361 yards but only two touchdowns. He was ripped last season for only hauling in six touchdowns after having 13 the season before.
Now, he is on pace for just eight scores and for someone who was supposed to be at the top of the conversation for best wide receiver in the game, that isn't good enough production over two seasons.
That being said, Fitzgerald is still one of the top 25 players in the NFL, and that doesn't figure to change any time soon.
15. Maurice Jones-Drew, RB, Jacksonville Jaguars
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Ultimately, you won't find many players on this list that play for losing teams. Because to be one of the top 25, you should have an impact on your team's record.
MJD is one exception. He has rushed for 77 times for 391 yards and a touchdown based on his sheer talent, will and determination.
Yet, the 1-3 Jaguars are awful and perhaps worse than their record even suggests.
Want proof? Jones-Drew's rushing total is higher than starting quarterback Blaine Gabbert's passing total of 387 yards, and yes, I know that the rookie signal-caller has only started in two games and played in three.
That's still a startling comparison and one that you should continue to watch during rest of the season
14. Jared Allen, DE, Minnesota Vikings
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Talk about a player who deserves to be on a better football team.
Allen might be a better example of this than Jones-Drew. The fierce defensive end has 6.5 sacks to go with 16 tackles, an interception and a forced fumble.
Unfortunately, the rest of the defense on 0-4 Minnesota doesn't provide a ton of help. The unit is ranked 19th overall in the league, which is still better than the team's 23rd ranked offense and 31st ranked passing attack.
Getting the picture, Donovan McNabb and company?
13. Joe Thomas, OT, Cleveland Browns
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Simply put, I believe that Joe Thomas is the best offensive lineman in football right now. The Browns have surrendered just seven sacks even though Colt McCoy is hardly a decisive decision maker with a quick-trigger release. Thomas protects McCoy's blind side and the fact that the former Longhorn signal-caller is still standing is good enough for me to put this lineman on the list.
12. Greg Jennings, WR, Green Bay Packers
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Regardless, Jennings has caught 25 passes for 366 yards and three touchdowns so far and is tied with Dallas tight end Jason Witten as the NFL's sixth leading receiver.
Don't look now, but Jennings is looking at his fourth consecutive season of over 1,000 yards receiving on a team that has plenty of other offensive options.
The point is that Jennings would put up even bigger number in most other offenses.
11. Mike Wallace, WR, Pittsburgh Steelers
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Wallace should find himself higher on this list as the season progresses. Currently, he has 25 catches for 454 yards (a gaudy 18.2 yards per catch), but just two touchdowns.
It's just two touchdowns, because quarterback Ben Roethlisberger hasn't had enough time behind a porous offensive line to take the necessary five or seven step drop to connect with Wallace on a deep pass as many times as he should.
Wallace has legitimate track star speed, and it's just a matter of time before the NFL's third leading receiver has more trips to the endzone.
10. Terrell Suggs, OLB, Baltimore Ravens
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Terrell Suggs has been nothing short of a terror to opponents so far this season.
Suggs, who had 11 sacks a year ago, already has four in 2011 to go with 15 tackles, two forced fumbles and an interception.
What you have to like about Suggs is his vicious nature and an apparent initiative on his part to take his skills to the offensive side of the ball.
9. LeSean McCoy, RB, Philadelphia Eagles
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Shh, let's let you in on a little secret.
The best player on the Philadelphia Eagles isn't Michael Vick.
It's not DeSean Jackson and it's not Nnamdi Asomugha.
It's the guy they call "Shady."
The NFL's fifth leading rusher, McCoy has 66 rushes for 363 yards (a 5.5 yards per carry average) and four touchdowns.
He has also chipped in 15 catches for 83 yards and two more scores.
When Philly needs a big play, they often turn to McCoy, and when they don't, such as only calling his number to run the ball nine times against San Francisco, they are destined to have problems.
Failing to use McCoy properly is just one of many reasons the Eagles find themselves at 1-3.
8. Andre Johnson, WR, Houston Texans
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On most days, arguably the two-best wide receivers in football are both named Johnson (Andre and Calvin).
This Johnson is a one-on-one mismatch for any cornerback and has the unfortunate situation of being the only above-average wide receiver on the Texans. Therefore, he gets double and triple-teamed by smart defenses. Despite the constant attention, the former Miami Hurricane has caught 25 passes for 352 yards and two touchdowns.
It's a mystery why the Texans' coaching staff doesn't target him even more frequently than they already do. Perhaps, it's because he might be showing some signs of breaking down physically and a hamstring injury suffered last Sunday should be monitored carefully.
Houston can not afford to lose Johnson if they want to make the playoffs for the first time in franchise history.
7. Darren McFadden, RB, Oakland Raiders
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Here are the statistics for McFadden so far in 2011. The NFL's leading rusher has 75 carries for 468 yards (an amazing 6.2 yards per carry average) and three touchdowns.
He is on pace for 1,872 yards rushing and 12 touchdowns. McFadden has 77 more rushing yards than the second leading rusher in the NFL, the Jaguars' Jones-Drew.
Most importantly, the Raiders might be 0-4 without McFadden instead of 2-2. In the two games in which he rushed for 150 yards, Oakland won. In the two Raiders' losses, McFadden didn't rush for 150 yards combined.
McFadden could be higher on this list, but the running back position isn't as integral to winning a football game as it used to be.
6. Haloti Ngata, NT, Baltimore Ravens
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Haloti Ngata's statistical numbers of 13 tackles, one sack and two forced fumbles doesn't tell the story of this dominating defensive tackle.
It tells you a little bit more that Ngata is the primary reason that the Ravens give up a paltry 72.5 yards rushing per game and have the NFL's third ranked defense.
Then there is the fact that despite being double and triple-blocked, Ngata often engulfs offensive players and then embeds them into the ground.
He might be the most underrated player in the league right now only because of the glamor-less position he plays.
5. Wes Welker, WR, New England Patriots
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The 5'9" 185 pound slot receiver has 40 catches for 616 yards and five touchdowns.
In four games.
If he stays on this pace, then he would catch 160 passes for 2,464 yards and 20 touchdowns.
Put another way, he would outperform the Carolina Panthers 2010 passing offense in yards and touchdowns by himself.
Give the Patriots their due. They put Welker in a position to succeed with where they line him up, and the "more quick than fast" wide receiver does the rest.
That Brady guy doesn't hurt, either; more on him in a bit.
4. Drew Brees, QB, New Orleans Saints
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Bad news for the rest of the NFL. New Orleans Saints quarterback Drew Brees looks more like the guy who led the team to a Super Bowl Championship in the 2009 season than he does the 2010 version, which was still pretty good by the way.
Brees has thrown for 1410 yards and 10 touchdowns against just four interceptions. His quarterback rating of 102.9 is no surprise for a player who finds a way to get different receivers involved.
The emergence of another of my aforementioned breakout players tight end Jimmy Graham (24 catches for 367 yards and three touchdowns) and free agent Darren Sproles have been "heaven sent" for Brees and the Saints.
3. Aaron Rodgers, QB, Green Bay Packers
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I kind of feel guilty for putting Rodgers at No. 3.
The defending Super Bowl MVP hasn't even had a partial Super Bowl hangover so far this season.
He has thrown for 1,325 yards and 12 touchdowns with just two interceptions and has an unheard of quarterback rating of 124.6.
In a 49-23 rout of the Denver Broncos this past Sunday, Rodgers threw for a career-high 408 yards, tied another career best with four passing touchdowns and ran for two more scores.
The most uncanny thing about Rodgers, however, is that I rarely ever see his receivers have to break stride on his throws. It's like the ball is magnetized to the receiver's hands.
2. Tom Brady, QB, New England
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So, "Tom Terrific" is currently on pace to throw for 6,212 yards and 52 touchdowns. Despite throwing five interceptions this season, Brady still has a quarterback rating of 111.3.
The bottom line with the New England Patriots is that they go as far as Tom Brady takes them. Some people will beg to differ, but Brady is far more important to that franchise than either head coach Bill Belichick or owner Robert Kraft.
I know that some people will point to 2008, when the Patriots went 11-5 with current Kansas Chiefs quarterback Matt Cassel running the show, but the Pats didn't make the playoffs that season, and that followed the 2007 campaign, when the team went 18-1 with Brady.
Now, think of what kind of numbers Brady would be putting up in 2011 if he had a true deep threat at wide receiver.
1. Calvin Johnson, WR, Detroit Lions
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Defenses simply can't stop Calvin Johnson right now. It doesn't matter how many players are covering him or who is covering him. He is going to score with the game on the line, and Detroit is going to win. That's what makes him No. 1 on this list.
Forget for a second that Johnson has 24 catches for 321 yards and EIGHT touchdowns in four games.
Instead, focus on the jump ball from Matthew Stafford that Johnson pulls down from three Cowboy defenders by watching the NFL.com Game Center clip at 2:30..
There will be people that argue that you can't put a receiver at the top of this list or that the Patriots Welker has double the amount of yards.
These are valid points, but the man known as "Megatron" simply is indefensible, and here's the topper.
He's going to get better.