No Pretty Boys Allowed: The 15 Best Non-Quarterbacks in the NFL
In homage to the nation’s prevailing mouthpiece of malcontent, presented here is a tribute to the NFL’s version of the 99 percent—a list of the best football players who don’t call plays and hog glory.
Among the good, here are the best. The tacklers, catchers, runners and deflectors either making quarterbacks look brilliant or causing them immeasurable pain.
Long live the NFL underclass.
15. Jahri Evans, G
Matthew Sharpe/Getty Images
As Drew Brees assaults the record books and leads New Orleans to one of the most prolific offensive seasons in recent memory, Jahri Evans is the man keeping him upright.
Though 2011 hasn’t been Evans’ best season, he’s the most proven performer on a sterling Saints line.
That unit’s been much-heralded for leading the game’s best passing attack. Less known but equally impressive, New Orleans ranks ninth overall in rushing.
Evans plays a particularly big role in the latter, gashing defenses on the interior to provide running room for a balanced Saints team.
Good as New Orleans is through the air, it’s the stealth effectiveness of their ground game that makes them a viable Super Bowl threat.
Honorable Mention Interior Linemen: Nick Mangold, Scott Wells, Brian Waters
14. Wes Welker, WR
Jim Rogash/Getty Images
For sheer statistical production, Patriots slot receiver Wes Welker has few rivals.
Tom Brady’s diminutive safety blanket isn’t the flashiest or most imposing playmaker, but he is the most prolific.
Since 2007, Welker has caught 73 more passes than the next-best wideout (Brandon Marshall) and hauled in at least 85 passes every single season.
He’s also in line for his first career receiving-yardage title this year, pacing a New England attack that ranks second in total offense.
No doubt, Welker benefits from Brady’s passing prominence. But even over Tom Terrific’s illustrious career, he’s never had any one receiver play this well for this long.
Honorable Mention WR: Steve Smith, Vincent Jackson, Roddy White, Mike Wallace, Brandon Marshall
13. LeSean McCoy, RB
Rob Carr/Getty Images
LeSean McCoy isn’t the fastest or strongest back in the league, which perhaps explains why the Pitt standout dropped to the second round of the 2009 draft.
A 4.50 40-yard dash on a 200-pound frame won’t get the draft nerds drooling.
But then you watch McCoy play, and the preconception of what he can’t do fades into the reality of what you see.
McCoy is an “it” back, one of those rare artists whose mastery eludes raw metrics.
Except, perhaps, for these:
1,294 rushing yards, 4.9 YPC, 20 total touchdowns
This year, McCoy eclipsed the Eagles’ 66-year-old franchise mark for rushing touchdowns and total touchdowns in a season. He’s also within striking distance of the franchise's single-season rushing record and on pace to become the first Philadelphia back to lead the NFC in that category since the creation of two conferences in 1970.
The man they call “Shady” is by all accounts having one of the greatest seasons in Philadelphia Eagles history. Nothing nebulous about that.
12. Jason Pierre-Paul, DE
Ronald Martinez/Getty Images
Much as I hate to lionize players early in their careers, Jason Pierre-Paul’s breakout 2011 season demands recognition.
Sometimes, even the smallest sample sizes are too eye-catching to ignore.
Pierre-Paul grabbed the torch this year in a long succession of elite Giants pass-rushers and has been the best G-Man not named Eli Manning since Week 1.
In just his second year, he’s already “that guy” in New York—the one who catalyzes the rest of the D when they’re sluggish, the one responsible for big plays in big moments.
And it’s not just the pass-rushing—though Pierre-Paul’s plenty good in that arena—the Haitian sensation is as good a field-goal-blocker as this league has ever seen. That wasn’t even a specialized skill worth mentioning until the 6’5” behemoth turned his hulking frame into a game-changing force.
Health permitting, Pierre-Paul will stay among the game’s most disruptive defenders years into the future.
Honorable Mention DL: Terrell Suggs, Julius Peppers, Haloti Ngata, Justin Smith, Jared Allen, Jason Babin,
11. Jason Peters, T
Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images
The Eagles haven’t been the offensive juggernaut folks expected when the season began, but it isn’t for lack of moving the ball.
Philadelphia ranks third in total yards, due in large part to the freakish athleticism of left tackle Jason Peters.
The numbers prove it.
Pro Football Focus ranks Peters as the game’s best tackle, and as the league’s premier blocker in space, he plays a critical role in Philly’s spread-’em-out-knock-’em-down attack.
He’s grown particularly indispensable on the Eagles’ oft-used stretch runs, springing Philadelphia running back LeSean McCoy to a career year.
Philly’s turnover woes have largely erased Peters’ best work, but there’s little the big man can do to control that.
Honorable Mention Tackles: Joe Thomas,Eric Winston, Bryan Bulaga, Tyron Smith
10. Andre Johnson, WR
Bob Levey/Getty Images
It’s easy to lose sight of the wounded in a fast-moving NFL, but Andre Johnson still deserves a place among the league’s elite.
From 2008 to 2010, Johnson was the only receiver in football to top 1,200 yards each year.
Extrapolate from the games he played this season, and it would have been four straight years over 1,200.
As bad hamstrings would have it, Johnson’s run atop the NFL leaderboard ends this year. But his reputation shouldn’t suffer for misfortune.
When healthy, the Miami product remains a top-flight deep threat and reliable safety valve for the Houston attack.
Look for him to get back into rhythm over the season’s final weeks and round into form as the Texans take their first dip in the playoff pool.
Honorable Mention WR: Steve Smith, Vincent Jackson, Roddy White, Mike Wallace
9. Jake Long, T
Doug Benc/Getty Images
Mine eye hath seen the glory of Jake Long, and it happened when he finally disappeared.
The game’s best left tackle left Week 14’s matchup with the Eagles after suffering a back injury.
Philadelphia proceeded to pummel his replacement, eventually forcing starting quarterback Matt Moore from the game with what can be best described as indecent exposure.
The Eagles pulled away for a 26-10 win. The Dolphins offense appeared dazed.
Such is the devastating effect of losing the league’s best lineman, a player who before last week hadn’t missed a start in his four-year career.
Durable and effective, just what the Miami Dolphins need in a franchise cornerstone.
Now if they could just figure out the other stuff.
8. Rob Gronkowski, TE
Nick Laham/Getty Images
All this scout babble about the evolution of the tight end prototype and its radical impact on the NFL would be better communicated by a life-sized rendering of Rob Gronkowski.
He's 6’6”, 265 pounds with a cudgeled face and a stone-cut jaw.
How do you cover that thing?
You don’t, not really.
Gronkowski’s become the face of a mutating new breed of tight end—fast, skilled and Godzilla large.
And it’s not just his size that’s notable. Gronkowski set a single-season record this year for touchdown catches by a tight end and has more receptions of 20-plus yards than any other tight end in football.
Honorable Mention TE: Jimmy Graham, Tony Gonzalez, Antonio Gates, Aaron Hernandez
7. Larry Fitzgerald, WR
Thearon W. Henderson/Getty Images
Though he’s headed for a five-year low in catches this season, Larry Fitzgerald's performance in 2011 only further validates his standing as one of the game’s best pass-catchers.
At the mercy of second-tier quarterbacks and without a big-name wideout opposite him, Fitzgerald remains among the league’s top 10 in receiving yards.
And while the numbers today don’t match those posted alongside Kurt Warner and Anquan Boldin, Fitzgerald’s continued production tells me he’s still the same player.
He’s the only Cardinal opposing defenses plan to stop, and they still can’t stop him.
6. Maurice Jones-Drew, RB
Sam Greenwood/Getty Images
Stranded in the offensive sinkhole known as the Jacksonville Jaguars, Maurice Jones-Drew’s historic season has gone largely unnoticed.
If the season ended today, the NFL’s resident pinball would take the league’s rushing crown on a team that ranks dead last in total yards from scrimmage.
Not since fullback Eddie Price won the rushing title on the 1951 New York Giants has a player-team combo registered that dual feat.
Price rushed for 971 yards that year, Giants QB Charlie Conerly posted a 10:22 touchdown-to-interception ratio and the team somehow went 9-2-1.
Also, Julius and Ethel Rosenberg received the death sentence and Gigi opened on Broadway. So, yeah, it was a different time.
All that history amounts to a giant pat on the back for Maurice Jones-Drew, who keeps producing despite facing defenses schemed to stop him.
5. DeMarcus Ware, LB
Rob Carr/Getty Images
How’s this for consistency?
DeMarcus Ware has led the Dallas Cowboys in sacks every year since the team drafted him in 2005.
This year will mark his seventh straight season as Big D’s premier pass-rusher and cements his place as the league’s most consistent quarterback killer.
As teams drop back more and more often, Ware’s value grows.
In a league predicated on the pass, he’s uniquely capable of disrupting the QB-WR rhythm so essential to most NFL offenses.
NFL General Managers seem to agree. Ware was the first pass-rusher taken in the 2005 NFL draft at No. 11 overall. In that draft and the two drafts prior, Terrell Suggs (10th overall in 2003) was the only pass-rusher taken among the top 10 picks.
Since then, at least one pass-rusher has been taken among the top 10 every year except for 2010, a clear overture to the growing import of players like Ware.
Honorable Mention LB: Patrick Willis, NaVorro Bowman, Clay Matthews, Ray Lewis, Von Miller, James Harrison
4. Arian Foster, RB
Ronald Martinez/Getty Images
Forget the one-year-wonder talk. Arian Foster can play.
Despite early injuries, the reigning NFL rushing king eclipsed 1,000 yards for the second consecutive season this year and gives the Schaub-less Texans bye-week aspirations.
The classic one-cut back doesn’t fool people, but an exceptional combination of power and vision make him one of the league’s best runners.
Foster gets less attention for his work through the air, but he’s just as effective in that arena.
He sits second behind tight end Owen Daniels for the Texans team lead in catches and receiving yards.
Yes,the philosophy-spouting literato can do it all. Looks like Foster and his first-rate Twitter avatar will grace our zeitgeist for years to come.
3. Darrelle Revis, CB
Jeff Zelevansky/Getty Images
Despite a moderate relapse over the last couple of weeks, Darrelle Revis is still the undisputed king of NFL cover corners.
At times this year, he’s looked downright Sandersian (Deion, that is), eliminating entire swaths of turf with his menacing man-on-man skills.
Even when he’s off, Revis' presence causes offensive coordinators to re-calibrate their plans of attack.
As NFL strategy and rulebooks squeeze cornerbacks tighter and tighter, Revis stands alone as the last bastion of superior pass defense.
Honorable Mention DB: Jonathan Joseph, Charles Woodson, Troy Polamalu, Carlos Rogers
2. Calvin Johnson, WR
Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images
When the Detroit Lions took Calvin Johnson with the second pick of the 2007 draft, my first thought was:
It was hard to justify the same franchise burned by first-round busts like Mike Williams and Charles Rogers taking another wide receiver in the top 10 of the NFL draft.
But just as Detroit pushed up against the very definition of insanity, things broke their way.
Now in his fifth year, Calvin Johnson’s burgeoning Hall of Fame career validates Detroit’s faith and rebuffs the prevailing skepticism about the Lions’ draft strategy.
Johnson, author of 14 receiving touchdowns, has become the league’s premier big-play threat. He’s the double-team-beating, jump-ball-winning heir to Randy Moss, the steadying tonic of talent on an inscrutable Lions squad.
When this team loses its bearings—which is more often than Jim Schwartz would like—Johnson rights them.
He did it in a big way last Sunday against Oakland, and figures to do it on even bigger stages before his Lions career ends.
1. Adrian Peterson, RB
Al Messerschmidt/Getty Images
Adrian Peterson belongs to a caste of athletes so superior in natural talent that they require no learning curve.
There is nothing a coach can teach Peterson that his body can’t already do.
At Oklahoma, Peterson set the NCAA freshman record for yards in a season, and as a rookie for the Vikings he established a new NFL single-game mark for rushing yards while making the first of four consecutive Pro Bowls.
Though injuries figure to keep A.P. out of the NFL’s showcase game for the first time this year, there’s little doubting the feature back’s singular skill set. His combination of size and speed remains unparalleled.
Even on teams where he was the only offensive threat in an era when running backs have been devalued to near castration, Peterson continues to shine.