The Pro Bowl names, the guys like Aaron Rodgers, J.J. Watt, Rob Gronkowski, Darrelle Revis or Marshawn Lynch, are always at the top of the list when it comes to discussing the premier talent in the NFL.
But who are the players that deserve more respect, more hype as we look ahead to the 2015 NFL season? Here are five names that consistently show up when I turn on the tape. From DeAndre Hopkins to Mike Daniels, this group can play.
WR DeAndre Hopkins, Texans
From a national perspective, Hopkins didn’t generate the necessary hype while playing alongside veteran Andre Johnson. However, the tape is there if you want to study a young wideout with size, vertical speed and the ability to produce numbers after the catch.
I like that Hopkins can align in multiple spots on the field as that gives the Texans options to create matchups for the third-year pro. Hopkins will run the shallow cross, the speed out, curl and the corner route from a variety of pre-snap splits. Plus, he is always a threat to stretch the field when he is a standard alignment outside of the numbers. That’s where we see the acceleration and the straight-line burst to pull away from defensive backs. He can get up and go.
Here’s a quick look at Hopkins in the red zone versus the Eagles with the wide receiver aligned at No. 3 (count outside-in) to run the corner route.
With the Eagles sending pressure and playing zero-man technique in the secondary (inside shade, no safety help), Hopkins has room to run the corner route versus a defensive back playing off the ball. The Texans’ wide receiver takes a straight stem up the field and uses the stutter move at the break to force the defender to open/take a bucket step (step behind). That allows Hopkins to use his speed out of the cut and separate to the ball. He made this look easy.
Hopkins can flip the field and produce in the intermediate passing game, and he should be the top red-zone target for the Texans this season with Johnson now playing ball up in Indianapolis. He is a legit playmaker at the position who should jump onto the national stage in 2015.
S Harrison Smith, Vikings
The discussion on the top safeties in the NFL always starts with Earl Thomas. The Seahawks’ veteran has earned that because of his consistent production, and he’s also considered one of the top five defensive players in the NFL according to the scouts I’ve spoken with. But don’t forget about Smith and the versatility he brings to Mike Zimmer’s defense in Minnesota.
The former first-round pick out of Notre Dame is extremely tough versus the run game, and he looks comfortable walking down to the front. That’s where he can fit up the run, drop as an underneath defender and also attack as a blitzer off the edge. Smith produced three sacks in ’14 and offers the Vikings some creativity in the game plan out of their sub-packages.
Smith also has the range to get off the numbers in the deep half or roll to the middle of the field. He had five interceptions this past season and plays with good vision and instincts, and has the speed to finish.
Check out this example of Smith’s athleticism and play recognition versus Ryan Tannehill and the Dolphins when the Vikings safety made a ridiculous interception off the swap-boot action.
This is an edge blitz from the Vikings with Smith rushing off the closed side of the formation. Here, the safety has to read through the mesh point (run) and then react to play his edge responsibilities: cutback, boot and reverse. Look at how Smith redirects off the run action and gets up the field. This forces Tannehill to unload the ball with Smith getting into the throwing lane and coming up with the interception. That’s one of the best plays I watched on tape last year.
The way I see it, Thomas and San Diego’s Eric Weddle are going to stay in that discussion of the top players at the position, but Smith needs to be there also. He’s tough, finds the ball and shows up on the tape in Zimmer’s scheme.
RB C.J. Anderson, Broncos
Anderson didn’t become the top back in Denver until the second half of the 2014 season. However, the former undrafted free agent proved that he could carry the load and put up numbers for the Broncos.
Looking at Anderson in 2015, I see a back who is an ideal fit to produce in Gary Kubiak’s offense. Think of the zone (or stretch) schemes in the playbook of the new Broncos’ head coach that require a back with vision, a quick burst and the ability to expose running lanes. That’s what Anderson put on tape last year when he found daylight. Pick a hole, square the pads and get up the field. No need to hesitate there.
This is a back who runs hard, finishes on contact and has the ability to change directions at the second level of the defense. A true, pro skill set at the position.
Here’s an example from the Broncos-Chiefs matchup last year on the zone scheme out of a pistol alignment.
This is one of my favorite runs from Anderson because he presses the ball, finds a hole and then accelerates vertically to challenge the defense. This allows Anderson to make a cut, beat the pursuit angles and also run out of a tackle on his way to producing a 20-yard gain.
I expect the Broncos and Peyton Manning to lead a very balanced offense this season, and that will create opportunities for Anderson to run the ball and also produce as a receiver out of the backfield. The numbers will be there for an underrated running back.
OLB Ryan Kerrigan, Redskins
Kerrigan had 13.5 sacks in 2014, but how often do we hear his name mentioned with the top edge-rushers in the NFL? We know about Cam Wake, Von Miller, Justin Houston or Terrell Suggs. Those guys can get home to the quarterback. But Kerrigan can do that too, and he has a really nice mix of speed and technique.
The Purdue product is extremely active with his hands when he rushes from a two-point stance in the Redskins’ 3-4 base front or when he drops down as a defensive end in the sub-packages. That allows him to get a jump off the ball and then swat down the initial punch from the offensive tackle while creating a path to the quarterback.
Plus, he has the athletic ability to set up tackles at the point of attack, get them back on their heels and then convert speed to power.
I pulled this example from the film, as it shows Kerrigan’s burst off the ball and the ability to use his hands in order to turn the corner versus the Rams.
This is a wide alignment from Kerrigan (plus two yards outside of the tight end), but look at the speed off the ball from the Redskins edge-rusher. This forces the tackle to open his hips while Kerrigan slaps down the hands at the point of attack to create an angle. That opens the door for Kerrigan to cut the corner and rack up another sack.
Kerrigan forced five fumbles in 2014 and has registered 38 sacks during his first four years in the league. With his speed and the consistent technique he shows on tape, Kerrigan deserves much more respect as one of the best young pass-rushers in the NFL.
DE/DT Mike Daniels, Packers
Daniels doesn’t have the ideal size to play in the 3-4 scheme (6’0”, 294 pounds), but the Packers defensive end/defensive tackle is powerful at the point of attack and athletic along the front. This allows Daniels to locate the ball, shed blocks and also generate an interior pass rush up the field.
I could watch tape of Daniels all day, because he plays hard, competes and leaves no questions about the level of toughness he brings to the stadium. He wants to battle on the defensive line, and it shows when you turn on the film. He has violent hands on contact, and he understands how to play with leverage.
Take a look at this play from the Jets-Packers matchup with Geno Smith handing the ball off to running back Chris Johnson on the inside zone scheme (read-option).
With the edge defender unblocked (“read”), and the tackle working up to the safety dropping down at the snap, Daniels is in a one-on-one matchup versus the guard. And he whips him. This is old-school strength from Daniels, as he stands up the guard, pushes him back and then disengages to make the tackle.
Like Kerrigan, Daniels is a technician on the tape, and he combines that with his raw power to win matchups on the interior of the defensive line versus both the run and pass game. The tape tells the story here with Daniels. He’s a beast.
Seven-year NFL veteran Matt Bowen is an NFL National Lead Writer for Bleacher Report.