Bleacher Report's NFL1000 Top 100 Players of the 2017 Season
Welcome to season two of NFL1000, Bleacher Report's scouting service in which some of the finest minds covering football put their talents to work evaluating the NFL.
Last season, we split those talents into positional evaluation. In 2017, the focus will be more matchup-centric and directed toward what you see every Sunday, Monday and Thursday.
Lead Scout: Doug Farrar
Quarterbacks: Mark Schofield
Running backs/Fullbacks: Mark Bullock
Receivers/Tight Ends: Marcus Mosher
Offensive Line: Ethan Young
Defensive Line: Justis Mosqueda
Linebackers: Derrik Klassen
Secondary: Ian Wharton
We'll have a ton of fresh surprises and original content coming throughout the year, and we begin the 2017 campaign with our list of the top 100 players in the NFL today. Our scouts put together this list based on past performance, future potential, talent around the player and performance within scheme.
We're sure this ranking will inspire discussion, as we hope all the NFL1000 content will. Thank you for reading, and enjoy!
100. Telvin Smith, LB, Jacksonville Jaguars
Telvin Smith's progression has been fascinating. Smith fell in the 2014 NFL draft because of weight issues (6'3", 218 pounds), a boom-or-bust play style and a failed drug test at the NFL Scouting Combine. Despite the list of concerns, Smith was an immensely talented player, and that has shone through in his first few NFL seasons.
His success can largely be attributed to his honed play style. Smith, like many other skinny or small linebackers, chooses to be an aggressive gap-shooter. He wants to end plays before they develop. It can be a gamble, but those who refine the skill can wreck opposing offenses.
When Smith decides on his move and gets going downhill, he plays like he's been shot out of a cannon. The 14 tackles for loss Smith posted last season, per TeamRankings.com, indicate that he often hits his mark, too.
Up until last season, however, Smith's game was incomplete. He struggled mightily in coverage through his first two years. He regularly allowed easy receptions and got lost in his zone drops. He showed major improvement in coverage in 2016. He didn't suddenly catapult into the stratosphere of Sean Lee or Thomas Davis, but Smith, for the first time in his pro career, looked comfortable in coverage.
Matching receivers on deeper route combinations still gave him trouble, but he clamped down on the short passing game. He added an element to his skill set, which isn't easy for any player to do at any point. Smith's growth in coverage and continued refinement of his run defense gives credence to his becoming an even better player in years to come. — Derrik Klassen, NFL1000 Linebackers Scout
99. Grady Jarrett, DT, Atlanta Falcons
Grady Jarrett's status as a fifth-round pick in 2015 remains a mystery. It's not like his excellence at Clemson went under the radar; the Tigers fielded one of the best defenses in their era, and Jarrett was a pacesetter all the way with his power and agility at defensive tackle.
At 6'1" and 304 pounds, he was undoubtedly seen as too small to field a starting NFL position, but the tape tells a different story. When you watched Jarrett play at Clemson, his leverage and quickness to dislodge from blocks was readily apparent.
Still, good job by the Falcons to snap him up when they did—Jarrett has become one of the best players on a young defense that could take over the NFL over the next few years. Jarrett started just two games in his rookie season, making a minimal impact, but ascended to the role of hybrid nose tackle and 3-technique tackle in 2016 to great effect.
His three-sack game in Super Bowl LI was America's introduction to Jarrett's disruptive ability, but he'd been working opposing offensive linemen all season. For his size, Jarrett has amazing strength—he uses leverage as a nose tackle to take on and split double-teams, and he has the quickness to kick outside to pass-rushing tackle. Including the postseason, Jarrett amassed 47 total pressures, tying him for seventh among all defensive tackles with his six sacks, nine quarterback hits and 32 quarterback hurries, and he added 21 run stops.
The only things stopping Jarrett from a string of Pro Bowl seasons are reps and opportunity; there should be little doubt that he'll get more of both in 2017 and beyond based on his potential and what he's already shown. — Doug Farrar, NFL1000 Lead Scout
98. Jurrell Casey, DL, Tennessee Titans
That Jurrell Casey has been so productive through his NFL career speaks not only to his skill set, but also to an underrated, nearly unmatched versatility. The USC alum, selected in the third round of the 2011 NFL draft, has amassed 33 sacks, and his career-high 10.5-sack season in 2013 came when he was playing mostly in a 3-tech defensive tackle role.
When Dick LeBeau joined the Titans' staff as the team's defensive mastermind, you knew Casey would be asked to work in different gaps; LeBeau always favors a defensive front in which players fill atypical roles to cause confusion among offensive lines. So, Casey was playing everywhere from nose tackle to defensive end in the Titans' base and nickel defenses in 2016, and he didn't lose a step with all those assignments.
Casey had just five sacks last season, but that doesn't indicate his effect on opposing signal-callers, because he also put up 10 quarterback hits and 36 quarterback hurries; his 56 total pressures ranked second only to Arizona's Calais Campbell among all players classified as 3-4 defensive ends. And again, Casey was doing a lot more than that for LeBeau.
How does a 6'1", 305-pound man play so many different roles? For Casey, it's an estimable combination of the strength required to bull through double-teams and push back blockers, and the surprising speed and agility to bend the edge and run the inside counter against offensive tackles.
The Titans rewarded Casey with a four-year, $60.4 million contract extension in July, and that should come as no surprise. He's the Titans' most impactful defensive player. — Doug Farrar, NFL1000 Lead Scout
97. Whitney Mercilus, Edge-Rusher, Houston Texans
After recording 19.5 sacks over the last two years, Whitney Mercilus ranks as a top-10 sack artist in the league. With names such as J.J. Watt and Jadeveon Clowney lining up next to or opposite of him, though, he's been overlooked.
In a league where defenders are signing $100 million deals, Mercilus, a former first-round pick who had his fifth-year option turned down, is playing on a four-year, $26 million second contract in Houston. In terms of his play on the field relative to his cost, Mercilus is one of the biggest value contracts in the NFL among veterans.
While Clowney and Watt flex from inside to outside the offensive tackle, Mercilus goes from standing up on the edge to lining up over the center from down to down. If you've ever seen how the Minnesota Vikings use Anthony Barr as an A-gap blitzer on passing downs, Mercilus is basically used in the same role for the Texans. — Justis Mosqueda, NFL1000 Defensive Line Scout
96. Bruce Irvin, OLB, Oakland Raiders
Bruce Irvin has carved out a peculiar career. The Seattle Seahawks drafted him in 2012 as a pass-rusher with devilish speed. Early in his career, it appeared he would be a speed pass-rusher, but his sack production fizzled. Irvin never matched the eight sacks he had as a rookie through his following three seasons in Seattle. It was disappointing that he didn't fully develop into that role, but he has grown into much more than a pass-rusher.
Few players are more complete and valuable than Irvin. As a pass-rusher, still his primary job, he is quite good, even if he isn't a perennial double-digit sack artist. His speed is devastating and can sneak up on offensive tackles and quarterbacks alike.
Irvin is also a fantastic run defender. You may not know it by looking at his lean frame (6'3", 250 lbs), but he crashes the line of scrimmage and contains the edge as well as any coach could ask for. He has the strength to set the edge, hold his ground and reach out with his free arm to bring down a running back if he needs to.
Irvin's coverage ability is quietly his most intriguing trait. He can drop into hook/curl/flat zones and match receivers accordingly. Covering the flat/wheel conflict is Irvin's speciality. His speed and intuition aid him in sprinting to the flats and carrying running backs or receivers up the field, if they choose to break their route vertically.
Of course, his ability as a pass-rusher takes precedence, but his coverage ability can be a sneaky trick to pull on offenses. Unfortunately, Irvin's looming reputation as an underachieving speed rusher shadows his versatility and proficiency in all phases of the game. If he could get a clean slate in terms of player type, it wouldn't be so difficult for him to get the praise he deserves. — Derrik Klassen, NFL1000 Linebackers Scout
95. Kam Chancellor, SS, Seattle Seahawks
When the Seahawks signed Kam Chancellor to a three-year, $36 million contract extension in early August that would ostensibly keep him in Seattle through 2020, it was a calculated risk. Chancellor turned 29 in April, and his injury history, combined with his violent, seemingly reckless style of play, would indicate a closer professional expiration date. The Virginia Tech alum hasn't played a full season since 2013, and it's not in his nature to tone down the kamikaze aspects of his playing style.
Why did the Seahawks take a chance on him anyway?
Because when he's in the game, Chancellor has one of the best overall skill sets of any true strong safety in the sport. Thought by some to be more of a linebacker type coming out of college as a result of some spotty coverage skills, Chancellor has worked hard to improve his coverage game, and it shows. His tackling brings the "Boom" to the Legion of Boom, but there's solid technique behind what he does—Chancellor isn't just running around and blowing people up.
He finished fourth in the NFL last season among safeties with 23 run stops, providing a measure of his value when he plays at linebacker depth. And while he did allow the occasional big play in coverage last year, he also gave up just 27 completions on 44 targets, which is an impressive number for a player who gets the majority of his targets closer to the line of scrimmage. In addition, Chancellor calls many of the defensive plays and checks on the field.
Why did the Seahawks take a chance on Chancellor's future? Simply because they don't have any other player quite like him, and he's too important to do without. — Doug Farrar, NFL1000 Lead Scout
94. Marcus Mariota, QB, Tennessee Titans
Coming out of the University of Oregon, Marcus Mariota faced a number of question marks during his draft evaluation process. Despite a stellar career with the Ducks, which Mariota capped off by winning the Heisman Trophy, there were concerns that he might not transition well to the professional game.
He faced questions about his ability to challenge throwing windows and to adapt to a pro-style offense, and even encountered one of the stranger knocks on a player during when it was reported that his lack of red flags was, in itself, a "red flag."
In just two years in the NFL, Mariota has more than silenced any predraft concerns. He threw four touchdown passes in the first half of his NFL debut, becoming the first player to accomplish that feat. Mariota finished his rookie season completing 62.2 percent of his passes for 2,818 yards and 19 touchdowns against 10 interceptions, despite suffering an injury early in Week 15 and missing the final two-plus games.
Mariota improved on those numbers last year, throwing for 3,426 yards and 26 touchdowns with only nine interceptions in another season cut short due to an injury, as he endured a fractured fibula. When you dive into those stats, you see true growth. Last year he placed in the top 10 among all NFL quarterbacks in both yards per attempt (7.6) and adjusted yards per attempt (7.14), placing ninth and sixth, respectively.
Fully healthy after the leg injury, Mariota is poised for a strong 2017. The Titans added offensive firepower, drafting Corey Davis fifth overall, giving Mariota a vertical threat, and drafting Taywan Taylor out of Western Kentucky in the third round. Tennessee also added Eric Decker, signing him away from the New York Jets.
These weapons, combined with Mariota's continued growth at the position, have many thinking the Titans are on the brink of a run deep into the playoffs. — Mark Schofield, NFL1000 Quarterbacks Scout
93. Jordy Nelson, WR, Green Bay Packers
After missing the 2015 season with a torn ACL, Jordy Nelson bounced back in 2016 with an extremely productive effort that consisted of 97 catches for 1,257 yards and 14 touchdowns. That was the most by any wide receiver in the league last year. He's long been Aaron Rodgers' top target, and the two are perfectly in sync.
Nelson is a great route-runner, using quick feet to help him make sharp movements in and out of breaks that create separation. Rodgers knows Nelson's game and can release a pass before the receiver has begun to make a cut, trusting he'll make the correct move at the right moment.
But where Rodgers and Nelson really come to life is off-script plays. When plays break down, Rodgers is the best quarterback in the NFL at buying extra time and causing the defense to panic. Nelson knows just how to exploit that panic. He reads the situation perfectly, knowing when to run deep and hit a big play over the top or when to come back to Rodgers and make himself available for a quicker throw.
That combination is deadly and has been one of the most productive in Packers history. The 32-year-old receiver shows no signs of slowing down as he's still able to run past defenders when going deep, and his quickness in and out of breaks to maximize separation appears undiminished.
There's no reason to believe Nelson can't be similarly productive this season, though his 14 touchdowns last year could be tough to top. — Mark Bullock, NFL1000 RB/WR/TE Scout
92. Deion Jones, LB, Atlanta Falcons
Deion Jones has quickly become the centerpiece of the Atlanta Falcons' fast, violent Cover 3 defense. A second-round pick in the 2016 NFL draft, Jones snagged the starting job right away as a rookie and proved to be the versatile force Dan Quinn needed in the heart of his defense. He was a force in all facets of the game. He made a strong case to be the Defensive Rookie of the Year, though Los Angeles Chargers defensive end Joey Bosa beat him out.
Speed is the core of Jones' skill set. Shooting gaps and protecting the perimeter is where he does the majority of his work in the run game. That isn't to say he can't get physical—he has the technique and strength to hold his own—but Jones tends to make plays before he needs to take on offensive linemen.
His quickness, both mental and physical, is overwhelming and enables him to regularly beat blockers and ball-carriers to their marks. Speed helps Jones in coverage, as well. Not only does he regularly make the right decisions and match receivers correctly, but he also has the closing speed and natural ball skill to get his hands on passes. Jones recorded 11 defended passes and three interceptions last year, including two pick-sixes.
There is no telling what his ceiling is. He stumbled from time to time last season because of his lack of experience, but he has a special skill set and is in the perfect environment to hone it. With his combination of speed, confidence and savvy, he should enter the top echelon of linebackers in the near future.
Jones is one of the most exciting young defenders in the league and will be a joy to watch develop over the next few years. — Derrik Klassen, NFL1000 Linebackers Scout
91. Devonta Freeman, RB, Atlanta Falcons
Running backs can be valuable in many different ways. Some are power backs who make entire offenses move. Others are speed backs expert at turning defenses around at the edge of pursuit and up the field. Others are great receivers, integrated into their teams' passing games. Still others are excellent blockers.
But the truly great backs are the ones who can do all these things. And in 2016, in then-coordinator Kyle Shanahan's varied, versatile offense, Freeman was just such a back for Atlanta. Put into the formation everywhere from the backfield to the wide side as a receiver, Freeman caught 54 passes for 462 yards and two touchdowns in the regular season, adding 1,079 rushing yards and 11 rushing touchdowns on 227 carries.
Moreover, Freeman has already shown this kind of production during more than one season in his three-year career—he led the league in rushing touchdowns with 11 in 2015, and was just as dynamic and versatile a rushing and receiving threat in that season.
Freeman's role may change a bit under new offensive coordinator Steve Sarkisian, but his skill set is good enough, and multifaceted enough, to fit any offense. — Doug Farrar, NFL1000 Lead Scout
90. A.J. Bouye, CB, Jacksonville Jaguars
Is A.J. Bouye a one-year wonder or the next big thing? That's the question the Jacksonville Jaguars had to aks themselves before signing the former Houston Texans free agent to a five-year, $67.5 million contract with $27.5 million guaranteed in March. That's big money for a guy who'd started just eight games over three years before the 2016 season, and was only penned in as a starter last season because of injuries.
Whatever happened, the light came on for the undrafted Central Florida alum in a way you rarely see so quickly at the cornerback position. In 2016, he allowed just 47 catches on 92 targets for 468 yards and 208 yards after the catch, and just two touchdowns on 499 pass coverage snaps. His regular-season opponent passer rating allowed of 73.1 was the 13th-best in the league. In the playoffs, he was absolutely ridiculous, allowing five catches on 15 targets for 55 yards, no touchdwons, two intereptions and an opponent passer rating of -10.4.
Based on his tape, the Jaguars were wise in deducing Bouye wasn't just a one-hit wonder. Watching him snap after snap, you see a defender who's equally comfortable in man and zone coverages, with a good spatial awareness and a quickness to the ball to deflect or intercept. Sometimes, it just takes players longer to get the game at the NFL level.
Whether Bouye is "worth" a contract as rich as the one he signed can be deduced over time, but now combined with Jalen Ramsey, Bouye is one half of a gifted cornerback group. — Doug Farrar, NFL1000 Lead Scout
89. Jason Verrett, CB, Los Angeles Chargers
Though Los Angeles Chargers cornerback Jason Verrett has averaged just eight games per year over his first three seasons, his immense talent has been easy to identify. His health is his biggest weakness, but he was on pace to be our top-graded cornerback in 2016 had he continued the blistering pace he set in the first month of the season. Along with Casey Hayward, Verrett could help give the Chargers one of the best cornerback duos in the league.
The 26-year-old Verrett has overcome his 5'10", 188-pound frame with elite athleticism, rare balance, good change of direction and vertical explosiveness. While many small-stature cornerbacks struggle due to the deficit in body mass, Verrett has no limitations. If he's 100 percent healthy and back to his 2015 form, he'll be in the discussion for the best corners in the league.
We're taking the optimistic look with Verrett as he was cleared to participate midway through the preseason. Though the league is deep with quality corners and some didn't make our top 100, Verrett's upside is too hard to ignore until he shows he's not the same player. He's a rare athlete at a position with few undersized playmakers. — Ian Wharton, NFL1000 Defensive Backs Scout
88. Cliff Avril, DE, Seattle Seahawks
Cliff Avril came to Seattle from Detroit in the 2013 free-agent defensive end haul that also saw Michael Bennett stolen from Tampa Bay. Since then, Avril and Bennett have been the pass-rushing bookends for one of the league's best defenses—though when Bennett moves inside to tackle as he often does, the pass rush is Avril's responsibility. It's one he's rarely shirked.
As fast as anybody off the snap, Avril can beat tackles with quickness, but he's also a student of the game who understands the attributes and liabilities of every blocker he faces. If he's facing a slower offensive tackle with more power, Avril will look to stunt and counter around his more stationary opponent. And if he's going against a quicker, more agile blocker, Avril has both the strength to bring a bull rush and the body control to foot fake his way into the pocket.
The results are clear. Avril has 33.5 sacks in his four years with the Seahawks, and at age 31—when most pass-rushers start to slow down—Avril doesn't seem to be losing a step. He amassed a career-high 13 sacks in 2016 (11.5 officially, but Pro Football Focus counts half-sacks as full sacks), adding 15 quarterback hits and 42 quarterback hurries to finish fourth in the league among 4-3 defensive ends with 70 total pressures.
The Legion of Boom gets most of the credit when people talk about Seattle's great defenses over the last half-decade, but don't sleep on the effect Avril's had as both a pass-rusher and a run-stopper. — Doug Farrar, NFL1000 Lead Scout
87. Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie, CB, New York Giants
Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie's talent and importance to the New York Giants defense helped transform the unit last year.
There were major doubts regarding how the Giants would operate in the secondary after drafting cornerback Eli Apple in the first round and adding him to a group that already had two boundary star corners. Rodgers-Cromartie took the biggest risk by sliding inside to the slot at 30 years old, and he responded with one of the best seasons of any corner.
He is a rare slot corner due to his 6'2" stature. Corners that tall are almost exclusively boundary players due to their length and inability to turn their hips and run downfield. But that's where Rodgers-Cromartie differs, as his excellent footwork seemingly always keeps him in position to smother the receiver and force a difficult catch.
The successful move also showed on the stat sheet, which can be unreliable for accurately describing corners. However, Rodgers-Cromartie matched his career high with six interceptions and had his second-most passes defensed with 21. That matches the film, which showed him in proper position to pressure quarterbacks into making pinpoint throws and receivers into making tough catches. — Ian Wharton, NFL1000 Defensive Backs Scout
86. LeSean McCoy, RB, Buffalo Bills
There aren't many people who can change direction at speed the way Buffalo Bills running back LeSean McCoy can. The phrase "cut on a dime" is overused to describe backs who can cut well, but for McCoy, it fits perfectly. He is elite in the way he can make sudden jump cuts to change direction and still maintain his speed.
This makes him one of the hardest running backs to tackle. On numerous occasions, McCoy has found himself in situations where a defensive lineman or two have penetrated into the backfield to the point where a normal back would be tackled for a loss. But McCoy isn't afraid to give ground to gain ground, often cutting back to avoid a tackle before bursting forward to pick up yards that most other backs aren't capable of gaining. This doesn't even touch on his ability in the open field.
The Bills use McCoy as a receiver out of the backfield and even line him up outside or in the slot. He can run a simple flare into the flat as a checkdown, but if he's matched up against a linebacker in man coverage, a checkdown in the flat can turn into a 15-yard gain quickly with McCoy's ability to make people miss.
In light of the Sammy Watkins trade to the Rams, McCoy is likely to receive extra defensive attention in 2017. But there's only so much that can be done to defend against him. Despite just turning 29, McCoy looks as explosive as ever and should still be the productive heartbeat of the Bills offense. — Mark Bullock, NFL1000 RB/WR/TE Scout
85. Danielle Hunter, DE, Minnesota Vikings
The Minnesota Vikings' selection of Danielle Hunter in the third round of the 2015 draft may go down as one of the biggest draft steals for a non-quarterback in the history of the league. If a middle-round pick ever records a five-sack season, he's outperforming the league average. Hunter had 12.5 last year.
Between Hunter, Everson Griffen and Brian Robison, the Vikings have posted the best pass-rushing unit made up of middle-round rushers in a decade.
At just 22 years old, Hunter has 18.5 sacks to his name. He's also done this as a backup. If you look at precedent for that many sacks at a young age in a backup role, the only man you can compare Hunter to is Charles Haley, who finished his career with 100.5 sacks and is in the Pro Football Hall of Fame. Haley had 18.5 sacks through two seasons while starting just three games with San Francisco.
Now moving into a starting role, Hunter has the potential to keep that job for a dozen seasons. If you don't know his name by now, you're behind the curve. Your favorite offensive tackle already fears him. — Justis Mosqueda, NFL1000 Defensive Line Scout
84. Dre Kirkpatrick, CB, Cincinnati Bengals
It took a while for Dre Kirkpatrick, Cincinnati's first-round pick in 2012, to get the hang of the NFL at an elite level. That was to be expected for a number of reasons. At Alabama, he wasn't taught a fully developed backpedal and worked receivers more with raw speed and aggression than any elevated technique.
Over time, though, he matched the intricacies of the position with his athletic skills, and 2016 was his best season. Kirkpatrick allowed just 49 catches on 83 targets last season for 491 yards, 173 yards after the catch, two touchdowns and an opponent passer rating of 68.9. Going into his sixth season, Kirkpatrick would seem to be on the verge of greatness.
When he's on, he is as tough to defeat as any cornerback in the league. He's aggressive from the snap, denying receivers their preferred position and forcing them to hand fight and body fight from the get-go. Once in coverage, he uses his lanky frame and impressive speed to cover ground in a hurry, which is why he's great at jumping routes. And he's not afraid to play physically at the catch point.
Kirkpatrick signed a five-year, $52.5 million contract extension in March, with just $12 million guaranteed and a $7 million signing bonus. If he keeps playing the way he did last season, that will be one of the NFL's best bargains. — Doug Farrar, NFL1000 Lead Scout
83. Gerald McCoy, DT, Tampa Bay Buccaneers
Perhaps it's because his Buccaneers haven't made the playoffs since 2007 (and he's only been with the team since 2010) that Gerald McCoy doesn't get the attention his play deserves from the general public. But when he's on the field, the man who's made the last five Pro Bowls has earned those accolades. He's put up at least seven sacks in each of the last four seasons despite his status as the primary point of focus for every offensive line he faces.
McCoy can beat the high percentage of double-teams against him because he has tremendous strength and a formidable bull rush—often, guards who take him one-on-one can find themselves pushed right back into the pocket.
But he's far from a one-trick pony; he also has a ridiculously quick first step off the snap and can cover a ton of ground in a big hurry. Factor in his expert hand moves, and it's no wonder McCoy has been one of the toughest outs for any offensive line over the last seven seasons. That's why he amassed eight sacks, seven quarterback hits and 34 quarterback hurries in 2016.
McCoy may not have the same name recognition as other great defensive tackles, but he deserves to be in the discussion with every one of them. — Doug Farrar, NFL1000 Lead Scout
82. Keanu Neal, S, Atlanta Falcons
The Falcons' 2016 rookie haul will likely go down as one of the greatest defensive draft (and undrafted) classes in recent memory. Atlanta was the first team to start four rookies on defense in a Super Bowl, and in no instance was that a matter of shortfalls on the roster.
For first-round safety Keanu Neal, second-round linebacker Deion Jones, fourth-round linebacker De'Vondre Campbell and undrafted cornerback Brian Poole, the job was to redefine the Falcons' formerly passive defense in their own image, and that's just what happened.
Neal was the centerpiece, and he played up to that classification. He started 14 regular-season games and every contest in the Falcons' postseason run, and his rookie campaign was one of impressive consistency against the kind of advanced passing games he'd never faced before.
Neal was targeted 82 times in his rookie year, allowing 51 catches for 564 yards and 237 yards after the catch. Those numbers would indicate he got torched once or twice, which is true, but here's the remarkable thing: In 756 pass-coverage snaps, he didn't give up a single touchdown. Only two safeties--Atlanta's Ricardo Allen and New England's Devin McCourty--had more coverage snaps when you include the postseason.
The 6'0", 211-pound Neal came into the NFL with a great deal of raw potential and some technique issues, especially a tendency to bite on play fakes. That happened less and less as the Florida alum found his place in Dan Quinn's defense, and it augurs well for the idea that, as good as he was in 2016, Neal has the potential to be even better in time. — Doug Farrar, NFL1000 Lead Scout
81. Kawann Short, DT, Carolina Panthers
In a historically awful 2013 draft class, Kawann Short somehow went from a first-round projection to falling to the second round and right in the Carolina Panthers' laps. The young defensive tackle duo in Carolina of Short, 28, and Star Lotulelei, 27, have been the faces of their defensive line for the better part of their careers.
To put Short's impact into perspective, his 22 sacks are only behind Ezekiel Ansah's 32 sacks in the 2013 draft class. That's right, a defensive tackle has more sacks than all defensive ends and outside linebackers in that class, sans just one player.
That's what the high-motor, strong-handed Short brings to the table every Sunday. If you isolate players drafted from 2013 and on, the only defenders with more sacks than Short since he entered the league are Ansah, Khalil Mack and Aaron Donald. That's more than a fine grouping to be a part of. — Justis Mosqueda, NFL1000 Defensive Line Scout
80. Mike Daniels, DL, Green Bay Packers
When you look at Mike Daniels, it doesn’t really make sense that he’s as productive as he is in the ways he is. At 6'0" and 291 pounds, he’s built more like a situational role-playing defensive lineman than one of the better hybrid pass-rushers of his era. But that’s exactly what he’s become, and he’s right up there with J.J. Watt and Michael Bennett when the discussion turns to multi-gap pass-rushers in the modern NFL.
Successfully rushing as both an end and tackle requires a unique skill set. You need to be quick and agile off the edge, and you must possess the raw strength and hand moves to disrupt guards, centers and double-teams.
Daniels can move past blockers as a 3-4 base end, but it’s his ability to get creative and disruptive from every gap in Dom Capers’ nickel fronts that makes him special. Then, Daniels roams the line almost like a man without a designated position—he just reads the open gap and blasts through, or he creates one with his understanding of how to use leverage. More than one high-level NFL blocker has felt the embarrassment of a Mike Daniels bull rush setting them in the wrong direction.
Last season, he put up 47 total pressures—four sacks, eight quarterback hits and 35 quarterback hurries—while facing more double-teams than any other Packers lineman. Adding 28 run stops, which placed him tied for second among players classified as 3-4 ends, shows his true versatility.
No matter what he’s asked to do from whatever location on the field, Mike Daniels comes through. — Doug Farrar, NFL1000 Lead Scout
79. Olivier Vernon, DE, New York Giants
Sometimes, you have to bet big on potential and hope it pays off. That’s what the Giants did in March 2016 when they signed Olivier Vernon to a five-year, $85 million contract with $52.5 million guaranteed. Vernon had put up impressive numbers with the Miami Dolphins through four seasons with his 29 sacks, but the Giants were really going after the Vernon they saw in the second half of the 2015 season. That's when he went off, amassing 64 total pressures from Week 8 through the end of the campaign—nine sacks, 26 quarterback hits and 29 quarterback hurries, plus 40 total stops for good measure.
Fortunately for all involved, Vernon lived up to his contract as much as anybody could. As the cornerstone of a massive defensive spending spree that also saw the G-Men give big contracts to defensive tackle Damon Harrison and cornerback Janoris Jenkins, Vernon proved he was no half-season wonder. He led all 4-3 defensive ends in 2016 with 83 total pressures—10 sacks, 15 quarterback hits and an amazing 61 quarterback hurries.
As both a stand-up rusher and a pass disruptor with his hand on the ground, Vernon uses quickness off the snap as his primary attribute. He has an impressive bull rush and an enviable array of pass-rushing moves, but he’s also quick enough to simply run by his blockers to disrupt the play.
The Giants spent a ton for his services, but so far, Vernon has given back as much as the Giants could have hoped. — Doug Farrar, NFL1000 Lead Scout
78. Eric Berry, S, Kansas City Chiefs
A five-time Pro Bowler and three-time All-Pro player, Kansas City Chiefs safety Eric Berry has been a perennial star since entering the league in 2010. Our third-highest-graded strong safety in 2016 consistently scored well above average despite dealing with a young cornerback stable in front of him. As good as Marcus Peters is, fellow cornerbacks Steven Nelson and Phillip Gaines were up and down, and Berry was often left to clean up their messes.
Berry is more dynamic than a traditional box safety, but he’s also no longer asked to be a true center fielder as much as he was in his early career. Still, the production has continued to pile up, and he’s been a model of consistency for the Chiefs. Four of his five non-injury-shortened seasons have featured 70 or more tackles, three or more interceptions and nine or more passes defensed per year.
Two years after being declared cancer-free, Berry has proven no hill is too high for him to overcome. The 28-year-old signed a massive new six-year, $78 million contract that will likely keep him in Kansas City through the rest of his career. If the past is any indicator, the Chiefs can continue to get elite production and impact from Berry in 2017 and moving forward. — Ian Wharton, NFL1000 Defensive Backs Scout
77. Chandler Jones, OLB, Arizona Cardinals
Not only is Chandler Jones a world-class defender from Syracuse, but he could also be a living example of when Bill Belichick made a clear mistake. Chandler Jones is a unicorn.
Last year, his first season in Arizona, the Cardinals were first in sack percentage in the NFL. Last summer, Jones was traded from New England for guard Jonathan Cooper, who is now on his third team since leaving Arizona, and a second-round pick. After posting an 11-sack season, it appears the Cardinals have gotten the better end of the deal so far.
Buried as a side character in New England and on a sub-.500 team in Arizona last season, Jones doesn’t get as much attention as he should. Over the last two years, he’s recorded 23.5 sacks. That number is only behind Khalil Mack and Von Miller, yet he has only one Pro Bowl and no All-Pro honors to show for it. — Justis Mosqueda, NFL1000 Defensive Line Scout
76. Jarvis Landry, WR, Miami Dolphins
While Odell Beckham Jr. understandably got most of the attention during his LSU tenure for his astounding catch radius and incredible athleticism, it was Landry who was the more consistent receiver for the Tigers.
That consistency has transferred to the NFL, with Landry putting up incredible numbers during his three years with the Dolphins. His 288 catches tie him with his former college teammate for the most in NFL history over the first three years of an NFL career, and though his 3,051 yards fall far short of Beckham’s 4,122, the two receivers are deployed in different ways.
In Miami’s offense, Landry is the pure possession receiver—the one Dolphins quarterbacks can count on to put up volume receptions and move the chains. He has the quickness and change of direction to befuddle defenders with option routes from the slot.
In fact, much of Landry’s production comes after a play breaks down and he is tasked with following his quarterback outside the structure of the play. On slants, quick outs and other short-to-intermediate angular routes, he’s become one of the most prolific players in the league. Think of him as a more dynamic version of Wes Welker in training. Landry doesn’t yet have Welker’s uncanny knack for communicating field openness with his quarterback, but he’s on his way there.
Additionally, 72.7 percent of Landry’s targets came in the slot last season, and he caught 65 of 85 targets for 856 yards and four touchdowns. Miami’s deep passing game was hardly a focus in 2016, but Landry did catch three of his five deep targets for 90 yards. He has the potential to do more than drive-extending catches in the slot, and he shouldn’t be diminished as a simple inside receiver. — Doug Farrar, NFL1000 Lead Scout
75. Markus Golden, OLB, Arizona Cardinals
A second-round pick out of Missouri in 2015, Golden had a decent rookie season with four sacks and two forced fumbles in six starts, but he really came alive in 2016 in conjunction with fellow edge-rusher Chandler Jones. In his second season, Golden had 12.5 sacks—only Von Miller and Khalil Mack had more among 3-4 outside linebackers—11 quarterback hits and 29 hurries.
Golden was helped by the fact that opposing offensive linemen also had to deal with Jones and tackle Calais Campbell, and some may wonder if, with Campbell gone to Jacksonville, Golden will have a tougher time getting pressures in 2017.
To do so is understandable, but it also marginalizes Golden’s complete skill set. At 6'2" and 255 pounds, he’s perfectly built to bring pressure off the edge—he’s low enough to the ground to get leverage for a bull rush, and he’s quick and agile enough to fake his way through blocks on an inside stunt or counter. Defensive coordinator James Bettcher will also use Golden in a stand-up role where he’s asked to read gaps as they open and crash through.
No one-trick pony, Golden also ranked fourth in the league among 3-4 'backers with 22 run stops, and he allowed just two receptions on five targets in coverage. No matter the scheme, you can expect more from Golden in 2017—and as more than just a pass-rusher. — Doug Farrar, NFL1000 Lead Scout
74. Brandin Cooks, WR, New England Patriots
Tom Brady hasn’t had a truly consistent deep threat since Randy Moss’ heyday, through Chris Hogan did pretty well with his 10 deep receptions on 17 targets for 397 yards and three touchdowns. Still, Bill Belichick wanted to open up the passing game more for Brady in 2017, and given the options in the draft, he decided instead to ship off his 2017 first-round pick to the New Orleans Saints for Brandin Cooks. And that move could completely redefine New England’s passing game.
Last year in Sean Payton’s offense, Cooks caught 11 deep passes for 544 yards and four touchdowns, and the third-year man from Oregon State proved to opposing defensive backs that if you took one wrong step against him, he would fly right by you on his way to the end zone.
But what makes Cooks a potential No. 1 receiver in any offense is his command of the subtleties of his position. He knows how to use leverage to fool a cornerback into taking the wrong position on a deep route. He is not afraid to run a slant or drag route over the middle of the field at linebacker depth, despite the chances of physical contact.
And most importantly, he has an implicit understanding of the kinds of option routes he’ll run ceaselessly in his new offense. The Patriots task their receivers to bend their routes based on coverage and defensive positioning, and if you can’t get the hang of that, it doesn’t matter how fast you are. Cooks may not be the next Randy Moss, but don’t be surprised if he has a similar impact on Brady’s production and the most sophisticated post-snap passing game in the league. — Doug Farrar, NFL1000 Lead Scout
73. Everson Griffen, DE, Minnesota Vikings
Everson Griffen is the perfect representation of what patience and development can mean for an elite athlete. Here’s what Griffen’s sack totals looked like in two-year blocks:
- 2010-2011: Four sacks
- 2012-2013: 13.5 sacks
- 2014-2015: 22.5 sacks
Steady development led to Griffen becoming a consistent late-bloomer at a position that very rarely has players break out in their second contract. Because of the elbow grease the Minnesota Vikings put in, they now have a bursty end who may have the best spin move in the league.
Griffen, a larger defensive end at 280 pounds, gets after the quarterback just as often as small, bendy outside linebackers. Over the last three years, only J.J. Watt, Von Miller, Ryan Kerrigan and Justin Houston have averaged more sacks per season than Griffen.
For reference, only those five, plus Khalil Mack and Cameron Wake, averaged double-digit sacks from the 2014-2016 seasons. — Justis Mosqueda, NFL1000 Defensive Line Scout
72. Thomas Davis, LB, Carolina Panthers
Davis is the owner of one of the more remarkable records in NFL history: He’s the only star player ever to return to optimal form after three ACL surgeries. The last one happened in 2011, and Davis has missed just two games from 2012 to 2016. In that time, he’s never posted fewer than 70 solo tackles, and he’s made the Pro Bowl in each of the last two seasons, with a first-team All-Pro nod in 2015.
That Davis is able to play as well as ever at age 34 is a testament to his conditioning and determination, but it’s also got something to do with the fact that the current NFL has met him halfway. A safety/linebacker hybrid at Georgia, Davis came into the league at 6’1” and 230 pounds. Back in 2005, that would place him in a hybrid tweener role with most teams, but the Panthers saw a way to make him a coverage linebacker because he also had an outstanding sense of how to stop the run.
None of that has changed in Davis' 11 seasons—in fact, he’s better and more productive in coverage now than he’s ever been, as the Panthers are able to deploy him in different ways with Luke Kuechly. Both Davis and Kuechly are completely versatile linebackers, and Davis especially has the range and awareness to be an asset in coverage. Through his first nine seasons, he totaled six interceptions, but he’s grabbed seven in just the last two seasons.
And coverage isn’t all he does. In 2016, he led all 4-3 outside linebackers with 20 total pressures, and he’s been used in different blitz packages from time to time.
Davis' career would be remarkable without his multiple recoveries from injuries that have ended other careers. Factoring that in, he’s had one of the more amazing NFL tenures of his era. — Doug Farrar, NFL1000 Lead Scout
71. T.Y. Hilton, WR, Indianapolis Colts
Since Andrew Luck was a slam-dunk consensus No. 1 overall pick in 2012, it could be argued that Hilton, who was taken in the third round of that same draft out of Florida International, was the only pick made by former Colts general manager Ryan Grigson that paid dividends past draft value.
From his rookie year through 2016, Hilton ranks 12th in receptions with 374, fifth in receiving yards with 5,861, sixth in yards per reception at 15.67 and is tied for 12th in touchdown receptions with 30.
Hilton has done all this despite the fact that he was by far Luck’s best target and opposing teams could focus on him with relative impunity. Like Luck himself, Hilton has had to transcend the limitations around him, and he did it well enough to lead the NFL in receiving yards in 2016 with 1,448 on 91 catches.
Hilton came out of college as a pure speed receiver, with some questioning whether he’d ever develop enough complementary skills to be a true No. 1 target. Few question that anymore. Hilton is as dangerous as any receiver in the league when it comes to the standard speed routes—posts up the middle and vertical concepts up the seam and to the boundary—and he’s developed the ability to shake a defender away with his footwork. He'll also display toughness over the middle when asked.
Still, you don’t tow firewood with a Ferrari, and the Colts use Hilton as the deep threat as much as any team deploys any speed receiver. In 2016, he led the league with 17 receptions in which the ball was thrown 20 or more yards in the air for 528 yards and three touchdowns. Now that new general manager Chris Ballard seems intent on building the talent on the Colts roster in a more successful fashion, Hilton's upside could pay even more dividends over time. — Doug Farrar, NFL1000 Lead Scout
70. David Bakhtiari, LT, Green Bay Packers
David Bakhtiari's progression in the last calendar year has been remarkable to say the least. Just 365 days ago, Bakhtiari was coming off a year of fan criticism, which the Packers followed up on by selecting Jason Spriggs in the second round of the 2016 draft. But even in light of that, Bakhtiari rose to the occasion. He clearly snatched away the left tackle job away in camp and never looked back. In fact, he finished as the best pass protector among tackles in our season-long grading last year.
Bakhtiari has been a tireless worker who wins with relentless effort in pass protection since college, but the knock on him was always play strength at contact. That continued work, both to cover up that deficiency through his technique on the field and to add strength to his 6'4" frame in the weight room, really came together in Year 4.
The 310-pound Bakhtiari will never be a player who wins with pure manhandling strength at the point of attack, but his ability to hide his hands and then spring them up into perfect position right at contact allows him to control defenders' frames just the same. At only 25 years old, expect Bakhtiari's work ethic to help him steadily rise through this list in the coming years as he continues to improve his playing strength and hone his masterful hand technique. — Ethan Young, NFL1000 Offensive Line Scout
69. Michael Bennett, DL, Seattle Seahawks
Though he played in just 11 regular-season games for the Seahawks in 2016 due to injury—the first contests he'd missed since he signed with the team in 2013—Bennett maintained his status as the epicenter of Seattle's top-tier defensive line when he was available. It's a position he earned early on with his peerless versatility.
Many players move between end and tackle in today's hybrid fronts, but nobody outside of J.J. Watt does it better than Bennett. He'll generally split his reps pretty evenly between the two positions every season, and he has an array of moves for any gap. Bennett gets pressure everywhere from nose tackle to Wide 9 end with his tremendous upper-body strength for his weight (274 pounds), understanding of angles and leverage, a gap awareness that allows him to sift through blockers with ridiculous speed and efficient tackling that makes him one of the better run-defending linemen in the league.
Bennett had just 42 total pressures in the regular season as he was dealing with various maladies, but he returned for the postseason and put up two sacks and three quarterback hurries in Seattle's line rotation. He's become more well-known for his off-field work for social justice and for protesting during the national anthem, but a healthy Bennett in 2017 still has the potential to upset every offense he faces. — Doug Farrar, NFL1000 Lead Scout
68. Dez Bryant, WR, Dallas Cowboys
Bryant is an incredible physical presence and the rare type of wide receiver who will go looking for contact. Whether he's running a slant, hitch or a simple bubble screen, Bryant will initiate contact using his 6'2", 220-pound frame and run over defensive backs on his way to pick up extra yards after the catch. That made him a favored target of rookie quarterback Dak Prescott in 2016, especially on third down.
Bryant also provided an outlet on first and second down against teams that overloaded the box to defend the run. In the red zone, Bryant can dominate opposing defenders. He has exceptionally strong hands and does a fantastic job of tracking the ball in the air and adjusting his body to the flight of the ball. He can beat a corner on a fade or back-shoulder throw with relative ease, but he also allows the quarterback a margin for error by adjusting to underthrown or poorly placed passes, snatching them away from defenders and grasping the ball tightly to prevent it from being batted away.
Bryant plays with a fire, but his passion can be misinterpreted as being hot-headed and perhaps he can toe that line on occasions. But ultimately, he's at his most effective when he is challenged with a tough, trash-talking corner who ignites his passion. Too many teams fall into the trap of trying to engage in trash talk with Bryant and only end up motivating him. He could be higher on this list if not for missing 10 games over the last two seasons.
That combined with the Cowboys' emphasis on running the ball has limited Bryant's targets. A healthy Bryant is still a prominent member of the Cowboys offense, however, and opposing defenses can't afford to forget about him while focusing on slowing down Elliott. — Mark Bullock, NFL1000 RB/WR/TE Scout
67. Sam Bradford, QB, Minnesota Vikings
Injuries and ineffective schemes limited Sam Bradford through most of his first few years in the league, which led some to classify the first overall pick in 2010 as a bust. In truth, like all quarterbacks, Bradford was in need of a passing game that wasn't straight out of 1973 and receivers who could run routes and catch the ball consistently, and the Rams weren't much into providing either of those things.
With the Eagles in 2015, Bradford was the beneficiary of a baseline playbook and the level of surrounding talent, and he put forth his first above-average NFL season. But when Philly traded him to the Vikings in September 2016 following Teddy Bridgewater's season-ending (hopefully not career-ending) knee injury, Bradford really took off and was able to show the full skill set that made him a can't-miss prospect at Oklahoma.
With a multifaceted running game and receiver Adam Thielen as a sneaky deep threat, Bradford displayed outstanding efficiency on short-to-intermediate passes, setting a single-season NFL completion percentage high at 71.6. Some minimized that total as the result of a dink-and-dunk offense, but Bradford was just fine on the deep stuff as well. On passes thrown 20 yards in the air or more, he completed 23 of 47 passes for 754 yards, five touchdowns and one interception.
That he did all this with one of the league's worst pass-blocking offensive lines was all the more remarkable; the Vikings' moves to improve that line in the offseason could lead to even bigger things for Bradford and his team. Still, when under pressure last season, Bradford managed to complete 61.8 percent of his passes for 1,087 yards, five touchdowns and just two picks. Only Aaron Rodgers had a higher passer rating under pressure than Bradford's 87.7.
It may have taken Bradford a while to fix himself among the NFL's top quarterbacks, but he's finally found the home that will let him keep doing just that. — Doug Farrar, NFL1000 Lead Scout
66. Joey Bosa, DL, Los Angeles Chargers
There aren't many first-contract players who made this list. There are even fewer 22-year-olds. In fact, there is not much precedent in league history for where the Los Angeles Chargers' Joey Bosa is right now.
As part of the NFL's most underrated pass-rushing duo with Melvin Ingram, Bosa recorded 10.5 sacks over 12 games in his rookie year of 2016. If you extrapolate that over a full 16-game slate, he would have had 14 sacks for the season. The only rookie pass-rushers in the history of the NFL who have recorded 14 or more sacks during their rookie seasons are Jevon Kearse and Aldon Smith.
With former Seattle Seahawks defensive coordinator and Jacksonville Jaguars head coach Gus Bradley as his defensive coordinator, the 4-3 defensive end will be relied on even more heavily, as it's assumed that four-man rushes will become more common in Los Angeles. If there is any young edge defender to double down on, it's Bosa. — Justis Mosqueda, NFL1000 Defensive Line Scout
65. Taylor Lewan, OT, Tennessee Titans
Selected in the first round of the 2014 draft out of Michigan at No. 11 overall, Taylor Lewan was part of a string of high picks the Titans used from 2013 through 2016 to upgrade a line that had underperformed for years. Guard Chance Warmack, the No. 10 overall pick in 2013, hasn't lived up to expectations, through right tackle Jack Conklin (No. 8 overall) looked great in his rookie campaign of 2016. Lewan, though, has become the pace-setter on that line and one of the most important players in what looks to be a dynamic young offense that could impress for years.
In 2016, Lewan allowed just two sacks, no quarterback hits and 22 quarterback hurries in 510 pass-blocking snaps. He ably mirrors edge-rushers through the arc outside the pocket, and he can move with more agile defenders to keep them from getting to the quarterback with inside counters and stunts. As a run-blocker, the 6'7", 309-pound Lewan has the strength and leverage to move ends and tackles to open up gaps, and he's improved in his ability to get to the second level and be accurate with his hit rates against linebackers and safeties.
The 26-year-old is aggressive with his hands to keep defensive linemen at bay, and he balances sound technique with a nasty demeanor. That demeanor gets in his way at times—he led the Titans with 14 penalties last season—but he's on his way to the status of a top-flight blocker in the NFL. His 2016 Pro Bowl nomination could be the first of many. — Doug Farrar, NFL1000 Lead Scout
64. Matthew Stafford, QB, Detroit Lions
For the first seven years of his NFL career, Matthew Stafford had quite the security blanket in Calvin Johnson, the all-world wide receiver. But when Johnson unexpectedly retired following the 2015 season, Stafford was without his primary target for the first time in his professional career. He responded by turning in one of his more efficient, productive seasons, completing 65.3 percent of his passes for 4,327 yards and 24 touchdowns with only 10 interceptions.
His completion percentage in 2016 was the second-highest mark of his career, topped only by the 67.2 percent he posted in 2015. Stafford was just outside the top 10 in both yards per passing attempt (tied for 14th with Green Bay's Aaron Rodgers at 7.30) and adjusted net yards per passing attempt (tied for 11th with Seattle's Russell Wilson at 6.56).
Coming out of Georgia, Stafford had raw talent that helped propel him to the first overall selection in the 2009 draft. But as his career has progressed in Detroit, resilience might be the hallmark of his professional experience. He has played through a number of injuries, including a hand injury last year, and he set a league record in fourth-quarter comebacks with eight, surpassing Peyton Manning. That brought his career total for fourth-quarter comebacks to 25, the highest for any quarterback drafted 2009 or later.
Under the tutelage of offensive coordinator Jim Bob Cooter, Stafford is in a good position to duplicate his efficient 2016 in the year ahead. Detroit has a number of talented skill players for him to spread the football to, including Golden Tate, Marvin Jones Jr. and emerging rookie Kenny Golladay.
That, combined with Stafford's raw ability and mental toughness, bodes well for the Lions in 2017. Now that he's the highest-paid player in NFL history, Detroit will be expecting more of Stafford—and soon.
— Mark Schofield, NFL1000 Quarterbacks Scout
63. Sean Lee, LB, Dallas Cowboys
Health has always been the lone blemish on Sean Lee's profile. Over the past five seasons, Lee has missed 34 of the Dallas Cowboys' 80 regular-season games, as well as the team's two playoff contests during the 2014 season. Like a handful of other players on this list, though, a healthy Lee is someone to be reckoned with.
Lee is best known for his coverage skills. In fact, only Nigel Bradham of the Philadelphia Eagles graded higher in coverage assignments than Lee did in last season's NFL1000. As the Cowboys' weak-side linebacker, Lee is often responsible for picking up running backs out of the backfield and flowing into the middle of the field in zone coverage. He excels as a poaching zone defender. He knows where he needs to be at all times and when to time his runs when undercutting routes for interceptions. The interceptions didn't materialize for Lee last season, but he was still astute in not allowing receptions and negating their impact in the rare event that he did allow one.
Though coverage is his forte, Lee's run defense is nothing to scoff at. He doesn't always show the best strength or aggression at the point of attack, but gap-shooting and maintaining cutback leverage is more of his style anyway. Lee's vision and confidence often allow him to bypass conflict, which helped propel him to 14 tackles for loss last season.
Lavonte David of the Tampa Buccaneers was the only off-ball linebacker to top Lee's total. With as many tackles for loss as Lee has, one might expect him to also secure sacks as a blitzer. But given his aforementioned coverage ability, the Cowboys tend to keep him in coverage instead of giving him pass-rushing opportunities. Should Lee remain healthy in 2017, he will have no issues maintaining his status as one of the league's best weak-side linebackers. — Derrik Klassen, NFL1000 Linebackers Scout
62. Jerrell Freeman, LB, Chicago Bears
National recognition has been missing from Jerrell Freeman's unusual NFL career. He played Division III football at Mary Hardin-Baylor before signing briefly with the Tennessee Titans as an undrafted free agent in 2008. His initial NFL stop did not work out, leaving him to take his talents to the CFL. After three years of proving himself north of the border, Freeman signed with the Indianapolis Colts, where he spent four years being one of the few good players on a string of miserable defenses.
Last season was Freeman's first year with the Chicago Bears, and he had a similar dilemma to years past. The Bears didn't have an atrocious defense, but it was not a particularly dominant unit. Also, the team as a whole was bad and uninteresting.
Freeman himself, however, was as dominant and intriguing as a middle linebacker can get. His combination of size (6'0"), strength (236 lbs), explosiveness and intelligence makes him a perfect fit for coordinator Vic Fangio's 3-4 defense. As the strong-side middle linebacker, Freeman is responsible for forcing and bouncing running plays, depending on how the play unfolds, and matching receiving threats over the middle of the field.
Run defense comes easy for Freeman. He is usually the linebacker tasked with sifting through trash and pressing the point of attack. His understanding of offensive play design and tendencies, as well as how to switch gaps with defensive linemen and attack blockers at the point of contact, makes it tough to keep him away from the ball.
Likewise, Freeman is outstanding in coverage. His vision and reaction time when matching route combinations is exemplary, and he is physical at the catch point. Freeman will fight for the ball in the air and punish receivers underneath for having the gall to catch passes in his vicinity. With some quality blitzing technique and tenacity sprinkled in, Freeman has a complete and punishing skill set. — Derrik Klassen, NFL1000 Linebackers Scout
61. Doug Baldwin, WR, Seattle Seahawks
A relative afterthought out of Stanford in 2011, Doug Baldwin became the first undrafted free-agent rookie to lead his team in receptions (51) and receiving yards (788) since the AFL-NFL merger in 1970. It's all been uphill from there.
His undrafted status is the primary reason for the boulder-sized chip on his shoulder, and woe be the pundit that calls the receiving corps he's part of "pedestrian." Over time, Baldwin has used that chip as motivation to work himself into one of the league's best receivers and—outside of Pittsburgh's Antonio Brown—probably the best route-runner.
2015 was his breakout season, as he put up his first 1,000-yard campaign and tied for the NFL lead with 14 receiving touchdowns. Including the postseason, he amassed a career-high 1,328 yards in 2016 on 110 catches, tied for seventh in the league with Tampa Bay's Mike Evans.
Last season, no receiver in the league had a higher passer rating when thrown to than Baldwin, and there are clear reasons for that. He consistently trucks cornerbacks from the line of scrimmage through the route with his understanding of angles and fakes, he's deceptively fast because he's so efficient in his movements, and he has a clear ability to get out of coverage with quick movement.
Baldwin may never lead the league in the NFL's traditional categories unless the Seahawks sling the ball around more often, but he's made the most of his opportunities and proved the doubters wrong. That seems to be what he's wanted to do most of all. — Doug Farrar, NFL1000 Lead Scout
60. Eric Weddle, S, Baltimore Ravens
Early in his career with the then-San Diego Chargers, Eric Weddle was one of the best full-field safeties in the NFL, able to crash down on running backs from the deep third, blitz from anywhere, trail speed receivers all over the field and rush over to help with intermediate and deep coverage.
He's not quite that dynamic anymore, but at age 32, Weddle may be the NFL's most technique-perfect safety. He's able to maintain most of his range through an implicit understanding of angles to the ball and how to shorten his arrival time to the receiver, and he's just as tough to deal with against the run as ever.
The Chargers deemed Weddle expendable after the 2015 season, and the Ravens signed him to a four-year, $26 million contract with $13 million guaranteed. He immediately went to work taking a middling safety group and injecting it with the consistency he's always had.
In his 10th NFL season, Weddle put up four interceptions, his highest total since he led the league with seven in 2011. In coverage, he's exceptional at fooling even the best quarterbacks by breaking to the ball as late as possible, and he can still roam the deep third in certain coverage packages. He allowed just 13 catches on 22 targets for 221 yards and two touchdowns to those four picks.
And against the run, Weddle finished third among all safeties with 24 stops. Factor in his one sack and seven total pressures, and it's clear Weddle is still one of the league's most versatile safeties. The Chargers' mistake was Baltimore's massive gain. — Doug Farrar, NFL1000 Lead Scout
59. Andrew Whitworth, OT, Los Angeles Rams
Through his 11 seasons with the Cincinnati Bengals, Andrew Whitworth proved his value by playing multiple offensive line positions at a ridiculously high level. If the Bengals needed him to play left tackle, he would limit defensive pressure as well as anyone in the league. If they needed him to kick inside to guard, Whitworth would adapt his game and turn into a snarling bull of a run-blocker. In 2016, his last season in Cincinnati, Whitworth allowed just four sacks, no quarterback hits and 10 quarterback hurries—that total of 14 pressures allowed was the lowest in the NFL in 2016.
Whitworth's pass blocking dominance has been a consistent case over the last few seasons when you watch him on tape. It's easy to deduce that his primary attribute is a peerless understanding of leverage and angles. He's not quick enough around the pocket to get away with technique mishaps, and if Whitworth weren't so efficient in his movements, edge-rushers presenting inside counters would eat him alive. But the 6'7", 333-pound veteran gets by on power, intelligence and an obvious intensity that he brings to every play.
The Los Angeles Rams now have that intensity on their offensive line after signing the 35-year-old to a three-year, $33.8 million contract with $15 million guaranteed in March. Given that Greg Robinson was the Rams' left tackle in 2016, Whitworth will provide an interstellar upgrade at the position. Robinson never quite had a clue how to play left tackle at the NFL level, while Whitworth has a doctorate degree. — Doug Farrar, NFL1000 Lead Scout
58. Dak Prescott, QB, Dallas Cowboys
The original plan with Dak Prescott was for him to learn behind Tony Romo; if the Cowboys expected him to start in his rookie season, they certainly wouldn't have selected him in the fourth round of the 2016 draft. But Romo got hurt in the preseason, and Prescott was thrown into the fire. The way he responded will have a dramatic effect on the future of the Cowboys over the next half-decade.
Offensive coordinator Scott Linehan started Prescott on a fairly easy game plan in which he was a product of Dallas' high-quality offensive line and rushing attack. Make the easy throws against loaded boxes, and don't make any mistakes. Prescott proved he could handle the first part of quarterbacking in the NFL—don't lose the game—and he threw just five interceptions to his 26 touchdowns, including the postseason.
As the season went on, the Cowboys coaching staff let Prescott do a few more things. He threw deep a bit more often, called audibles at the line and proved he could take control of the offense. On the season, he threw four touchdowns to just one interception under pressure—far more efficient than fellow rookies Carson Wentz and Jared Goff.
He was exceptional in play action, completing 76.1 of his 131 attempts for 1,176 yards, six touchdowns and no interceptions. He was a better deep passer as the year went on, and by the time the Cowboys hit the playoffs, Prescott was ready to prove he could make the clutch deep pass as well as anybody.
Linehan said he wants Prescott to do more in his second season, per Kate Hairopoulos of the Dallas Morning News, and he should be more than ready for that challenge. A deep playoff run and perhaps more could be the result. — Doug Farrar, NFL1000 Lead Scout
57. Jadeveon Clowney, DE, Houston Texans
After losing the start of his career because of knee injuries, Jadeveon Clowney started to make up ground in 2016. With J.J. Watt out for the majority of the year, Clowney was Houston's primary source for interior pressure last season.
He was an edge defender at the University of South Carolina, but after being drafted first overall in 2014, Clowney was moved to a hybrid position, where he plays both inside and outside an offensive tackle. That hurts his sack total, but his high-impact plays do not always show up on the box score.
Despite just a six-sack season last year, Clowney led the NFL in tackles for loss in the running game. Only 24 years old, Clowney is still the age of some rookies in the 2017 draft class. Expect to hear from him as "the next Michael Bennett" for the next decade. — Justis Mosqueda, NFL1000 Defensive Line Scout
56. Jordan Reed, TE, Washington Redskins
Jordan Reed is the focal point of the Washington offense. In April, head coach Jay Gruden even told reporters "the offense runs through Jordan, quite frankly."
Reed is an incredibly athletic tight end who is a matchup nightmare for opposing defenses. He's too quick for linebackers and safeties and, at 6'2", 246 pounds, too big for most cornerbacks. He runs routes better than any other tight end in the league and better than many wide receivers too. His signature crossover move has left many defenders trailing behind him as he breaks into the open field in critical third-down situations.
With all that ability from Reed, Gruden has put together a scheme that makes life easy for quarterback Kirk Cousins. The tight end will move around, lining up inline, in the slot or isolated to one side of the field on the outside. Those isolated formations give Cousins an easy man- or zone-coverage read before the snap, as the defender lined up across from Reed will typically indicate the defense's intentions.
The Redskins will usually pair a man-coverage beating concept on Reed's side of the field with a zone-coverage beater on the other. With a good idea of the type of coverage before the snap, Cousins simply has to confirm the coverage post-snap and then work to the side of the field designed to beat that coverage.
Reed has always been an elusive receiver after the catch, but in 2016, he became noticeably more physical too. Earlier in his career, Reed would try to elude smaller, quicker defenders, but now he's willing and able to run over the smaller defenders as he fights for more yards after the catch.
However, this added physicality is perhaps somewhat unwise given Reed's injury history. He has yet to play a full 16-game season in four years in the NFL and has missed all of OTAs and training camp with a toe injury, per Lake Lewis Jr. of Redskins Wire and John Keim of ESPN.com. Washington activated him off the PUP on Aug. 20, and he is expected to be ready for Sept. 10's Week 1 game versus the Philadelphia Eagles at FedEx Field. It wouldn't be surprising to see him miss time this year, though.
55. Casey Hayward, CB, Los Angeles Chargers
Casey Hayward is an excellent example of the NFL truth that sometimes you just need the right surroundings to bring out your best. He was a hybrid outside/slot cornerback with the Packers from 2012 through 2015 and never really got back on track after a rookie season in which he totaled six interceptions. In 2015, Hayward started just 11 games and didn't come down with a single interception, but he was able to play more than credibly as he transitioned from the slot to outside.
The Chargers signed Hayward to a three-year, $15.3 million deal with $6.8 million guaranteed in March 2016, and then Hayward went out and made that contract look like the biggest steal in the NFL. Not only did he lead the league in interceptions with seven, but he also allowed just 54 catches on 93 targets for 685 yards, 211 yards after the catch, one touchdown and an opponent passer rating of 53.4—third-best behind Minnesota's Xavier Rhodes and Denver's Aqib Talib.
According to Mike Renner of Pro Football Focus, only Arizona's Patrick Peterson trailed opposing No. 1 receivers more frequently than Hayward did. And since the Chargers ranked sixth in Football Outsiders' opponent-adjusted metrics against No. 1 receivers, you know Hayward was doing his job at a high level. His presence was even more important after prospective No. 1 cornerback Jason Verrett missed most of the 2016 season because of injury.
Hayward has the speed (4.57 40-yard dash) and aggressiveness to deal with any top receiver, but he also brings years of experience in the slot to his game in his ability to mirror and shut down smaller, quicker receivers running more angular routes. If he continues at this pace, Hayward will be higher on this list in 2018 than he is now. — Doug Farrar, NFL1000 Lead Scout
54. Harrison Smith, S, Minnesota Vikings
It may seem strange that a safety with zero interceptions in 2016 ranks so highly entering 2017, but the Minnesota Vikings defense boasts one of the most consistent yet dynamic overall players at the position in Harrison Smith.
Our second-highest-graded free safety last year, Smith boasts the unique ability to do everything in a similar fashion to Devin McCourty of the Patriots. When the Vikings needed Smith to be more of a downhill playmaker and slot defender in lieu of linebacker Anthony Barr's struggles in 2016 as opposed to a rangy, single-high ball hawk, Smith had no issues fitting in.
His talent to fill every role is the reason he stands above other well-known safeties despite not having the hype of his peers. The two-time Pro Bowler missed two games last year but finished the season with 91 combined tackles despite not having the same free rein to roam for tackles and turnovers. With hopes that Barr will get back to his 2015 level of play and a terrific defensive line to anchor the unit, Smith could be in for a massive year with another role tweak.
It'll help that Smith has recovered from offseason ankle surgery too. Few safeties have the speed and fluidness to cover running backs and slot receivers while also boasting the ability to go toe-to-toe with tight ends downfield. He is excellent in every role and will challenge for an All-Pro bid in 2017 if he can bump up his forced turnover numbers. — Ian Wharton, NFL1000 Defensive Backs Scout
53. Ezekiel Elliott, RB, Dallas Cowboys
The fourth overall pick in the 2016 draft took the league by storm his rookie season. With the help of that strong Cowboys offensive line, Elliott ran for a league-leading 1,631 yards—318 more than anyone else. He averaged over five yards a carry and scored 15 touchdowns to boot. While fellow rookie Dak Prescott had an impressive rookie season, too, his shared time in the backfield with Elliott help him.
The Ohio State product is as talented and well-rounded as running backs come. He's a perfect fit for the Cowboys, as he can run their various schemes with equal effectiveness. While their base run is the outside zone, he's just as adept at running inside zone, duo, whams, power, sweeps and any other running play the Cowboys can come up with.
He has good hands, which make him a threat out of the backfield as a receiver on screens and checkdowns. While his pass protection can improve, he's far ahead of where most backs are at this point, and he can be trusted to pick up a blitz.
However, for as talented as Elliott is, I would be remiss to discuss him without mentioning his suspension. The NFL has suspended him for the first six games of the season for violating the league's personal conduct policy relating to domestic violence accusations.
Elliott appealed that suspension, given it was related to incidents he was never criminally charged for, but the league is holding firm in its stance. The NFLPA then filed a restraining order against the league to block the suspension.
If Elliott's suspension is upheld and he is indeed guilty of what he is accused of doing, then hopefully it will set an example for the rest of the league and indeed young men who look up to Elliott that talent or name recognition won't prevent players from being held accountable for their actions. — Mark Bullock, NFL1000 RB/WR/TE Scout
52. Ndamukong Suh, DT, Miami Dolphins
In his prime with the Detroit Lions, Ndamukong Suh was as destructive a defensive force as has been seen in recent NFL history. Of course, some of that was self-destruction—Suh lost over $400,000 in fines and suspensions due to dirty play through September 2015, per ESPN—but he's also been one of the best defensive linemen of his generation.
That's why the Dolphins signed Suh to a six-year, $114 million contract with $60 million guaranteed in 2015—the richest deal ever given to a non-quarterback. It was hard for Suh to live up to it at first, because former Dolphins defensive coordinator Kevin Coyle seemed intent on putting Suh on the Albert Haynesworth plan, forcing him to be a two-gap defender when his strength is splitting single gaps at the point of attack. Coyle's ouster in October 2015 set things right, and Suh was back to his old ways as a true 3-tech tackle.
Though he had just six sacks in 2016, per PFF, Suh at age 30 is still an outstanding pass-rusher from the inside; he tallied 10 quarterback hits and 41 hurries, and his 57 total pressures tied him for third with Philadelphia's Fletcher Cox for third among defensive tackles.
Just as notably, Suh has become a stellar run defender—his 33 run stops last season also ranked him third in that category behind Damon Harrison of the Giants and Danny Shelton of the Browns. He may have toned down the dirty stuff in his time with the Dolphins (though Ben Roethlisberger may have a case that he hasn't cut it out altogether), but Suh is still a fierce opponent for any offensive line. — Doug Farrar, NFL1000 Lead Scout
51. Patrick Peterson, CB, Arizona Cardinals
It seems as though Arizona Cardinals cornerback Patrick Peterson has been around for longer than six years because of how well he’s played in all but one season, but the 27-year-old is still among the very best at his craft and not slowing down anytime soon. After figuring out how to deal with diabetes, Peterson’s play has been nothing short of excellent, grading as our fourth-highest cornerback in 2016. Most impressively, he did that without a quality second cornerback and inconsistent health from safety Tyrann Mathieu.
In true shutdown corner fashion, Peterson’s statistics are a product of being targeted very little. Unlike some of his peers, Peterson rarely has the opportunity to log interceptions and defensed passes but it’s not due to a lack of skill. Offenses have few reasons to attack Peterson, especially when he’s playing press man.
There should be less uncertainty around Peterson in the Cardinals’ secondary this season, with Mathieu back in the fold and the addition of rookie safety Budda Baker. Both are rangy, versatile playmakers who can protect the corners opposite of Peterson, which theoretically will lead to more targets his way. With as much talent as Peterson has, giving him as many chances to make a play on the ball would be a wise decision. -- Ian Wharton, NFL1000 Defensive Backs Scout
50. Geno Atkins, DT, Cincinnati Bengals
Before Aaron Donald took over the limelight, Geno Atkins was the face of the undersized 3-technique defensive tackle. The 6'1" former fourth-round pick was a second-team All-Pro selection in his second year and has made five of the last six Pro Bowls.
A 2013 knee injury and his recovery season of 2014 set his numbers back a bit, but he recorded a combined 40 sacks in the 2011-2012 and 2015-2016 stretches. Ten sacks a season puts him in the elite category for defensive tackles.
Even Donald (19 sacks), another player who lives off his first step's penetration, couldn't match Atkins' sack total (20 sacks) over the last two years. Atkins is more a pass-rusher than a run-stopper, though he also managed 16 run stops last season and can play the run well when he doesn't have his ears pinned back to harass opposing quarterbacks. — Justis Mosqueda, NFL1000 Defensive Line Scout
49. Damon Harrison, DT, New York Giants
Defensive tackles don't get enough credit in today's NFL, and run-stopping defensive tackles get even less credit, no matter how good they are. Make no mistake, Damon Harrison is great. In his first season of a five-year, $46.25 million deal with the Giants after four years with the Jets, "Snacks" set the new standard for run stopping in the league.
Harrison's stats aren't that impressive—55 tackles, 31 assists, 2.5 sacks last season—but when you turn on the tape, you see what a wrecking machine he can be. Faced with double-teams on just about every play, Harrison can wrestle through blockers with pure strength and surprising speed for his 6'3", 341-pound frame.
And it's not that Harrison wasn't a good pass-rusher for a 1-technique tackle—he had three quarterback hits and 15 hurries in addition to his sacks. But the man is paid to shut down the run, and he did that on an entirely different level than anyone else. His 49 run stops were by far the NFL's highest, 10 more than Cleveland's Danny Shelton, and Harrison had a run stop on 15.8 percent of his total run snaps.
To negate the potential for a productive run play that often is to redefine your defense, especially on first and second down. That's why in Harrison's case, being a two-down player isn't a bad thing. First of all, he can do enough to stay on the field, and he's just as much of a crucial specialist as any pass-rusher. — Doug Farrar, NFL1000 Lead Scout
48. Bobby Wagner, LB, Seattle Seahawks
Some players are so good at so many things, they get overlooked at times because they don't have one dominant skill. But coaches and teammates value such players above all, because they are the shot-callers on the field. Wagner has been this kind of player since the Seahawks selected him in the second round of the 2012 draft.
Anything you want a linebacker to do, Wagner does it at an exemplary level. He takes run fits away with ruthless efficiency—his 41 run stops last season tied him for second in the league among inside linebackers. His coverage abilities in the short and intermediate areas are exceptional. In 2016, he allowed 51 catches on 65 targets for 431 yards, but not a single touchdown.
He's become a great blitzer as well. Last year, he led all inside linebackers with 24 total pressures and was the only player at his position with more than 10 quarterback hits.
When the Seahawks switch from their three-linebacker base front to nickel defense, Wagner is just as good kicking outside to the strong- and weak-side designations, because he has the half-field speed to stop plays all the way to the boundary.
In addition, Wagner is responsible for a lot of the checks and calls in a defense that has been one of the best in recent NFL history since Wagner became a part of it. That's no coincidence, and it's time for more people to recognize him as one of the best every-down linebackers in the league. — Doug Farrar, NFL1000 Lead Scout
47. Desmond Trufant, CB, Atlanta Falcons
When Desmond Trufant went down for the remainder of the 2016 season with a pectoral injury in Week 9, the Falcons withstood the blow only because they'd drafted and acquired defensive backs so well in recent years. But Trufant's absence was among the reasons for Atlanta's historic collapse in Super Bowl LI.
There are few cornerbacks who play with Trufant's consistent smoothness and technique. He doesn't overwhelm with his physicality, and he will give up the occasional big play, but he provides top-level cornerback skills consistently. That's a highly valued skill in a league where the passing game rules all.
Trufant can play press coverage and mirror a receiver from his first step, or he can back off into zone coverage and hand off expertly to the safety. He's quick enough to jump routes and take away the short pass, and he can trail any team's No. 1 receiver down the sideline and seam on deep routes.
Atlanta's defense has become a strength in recent years, and with Trufant back on the field in 2017, it could be a top-five group. — Doug Farrar, NFL1000 Lead Scout
46. Mike Evans, WR, Tampa Bay Buccaneers
Mike Evans is possibly the most physically imposing wide receiver in the NFL. The 6'5", 231-pound Evans is an incredibly tough matchup for every cornerback he lines up against. He's strong enough to withstand attempts to jam him at the line of scrimmage and will make full use of his frame to bully defenders.
His route running has improved drastically since his 2014 rookie season, but because he's too big for most defenders, he can simply shield them from the ball on critical 3rd-and-short situations. His size also makes him a threat in the run game, where he can be physical with corners and safeties, blocking them out of plays to turn good runs into great ones.
Evans has a freakish ability to go up and win jump balls over defenders. A number of times, quarterback Jameis Winston has been in trouble and simply thrown the ball up to Evans, knowing he'll adjust. Evans doesn't have to have separation to win the ball and widens the field by using his length to keep his feet in bounds while reaching sideline balls thrown almost out of bounds.
All of this adds up to make Evans a red-zone threat defensive coordinators lose sleep over. He has 27 touchdowns in his first three years, including 12 in 2016. Against both the 49ers and Rams, Evans scored TDs in the red zone after Winston felt pressure and began to scramble. Winston, perhaps unwisely, put the ball up for grabs, trusting Evans to come down with it. On both occasions Evans high-pointed the ball to complete the touchdown.
This season, the Buccaneers signed DeSean Jackson to play opposite Evans. Jackson is one of the best deep threats in the history of the game, and his speed still scares defenses. His threat, if used correctly, should force opposing defenses to play deeper, which will open space underneath for Evans. Assuming he stays injury-free, Evans will continue to improve and push higher up this list next year. — Mark Bullock, NFL1000 RB/WR/TE Scout
45. Xavier Rhodes, CB, Minnesota Vikings
Through his first three NFL seasons, Xavier Rhodes showed the potential to be a true shutdown cornerback— mixed as that potential was with the fact he was still learning to deal with veteran receivers and use his physicality to optimal advantage. But in 2016, it all came together. Rhodes had five interceptions after totaling just two in his first three years, and his advanced stats were stellar.
According to Pro Football Focus, Rhodes allowed 36 catches on 75 targets for 429 yards, 122 yards after the catch, two touchdowns, five picks and an opponent quarterback rating that was just ridiculous: 47.0, the best in the NFL last year. He's also one of the better, more aggressive run-tackling cornerbacks in the league, but that's not why the Vikings re-signed him to a six-year, $78.1 million contract extension at the end of July. They did so because teams need dominant cornerbacks, and Rhodes will only trend up.
He has the ideal size to play outside cornerback at 6'1" and 218 pounds, and he brings the kind of aggressiveness one needs to trail elite receivers. The difference now is he's much more efficient with his movement, is better at reading routes and is cleaning up his work against smaller receivers who run more angular routes.
Rhodes has every attribute to be the NFL's best cornerback, and it wouldn't be too much of a surprise if he's exactly that sooner than later. — Doug Farrar, NFL1000 Lead Scout
44. Jamie Collins, LB, Cleveland Browns
The Jamie Collins trade surprise everyone last season. Collins, then with the New England Patriots, was due for a contract extension after the year, but the Patriots didn't want to spend the money. Instead, they shipped him off in late October to the Cleveland Browns for a middle-round pick, adding to the endless list of trades the current Browns front office has made.
If it was anything other than his future contract, it may have been Collins' inconsistency that pushed him out of New England. Head coach Bill Belichick desires a certain level of consistency from everyone, and Collins didn't always provide that.
He is a gap-shooter in run defense. In pass coverage, he wants to get his hands on the ball. Collins' aggression in both phases of the game lends itself to plenty of exciting, explosive plays, but it also led to his surrendering more big plays than he should have. He is the linebacker equivalent to a home run specialist, not a contact hitter.
The Browns, however, welcome Collins' boom-or-bust play style. His positive plays far outweigh his sloppy ones, and he is a multifaceted linebacker who has the athletic ability and versatility to thrive in today's NFL. Collins can defend the run, cover in space and even rush the passer, which he was accustomed to in college at Southern Miss. New Browns defensive coordinator Gregg Williams will surely find ways to be creative with Collins' rare skill set. — Derrik Klassen, NFL1000 Linebackers Scout
43. K.J. Wright, LB, Seattle Seahawks
K.J. Wright may not get the same attention as his counterpart, Bobby Wagner, but Wright is every bit as talented. A fourth-round selection in Seattle's famed 2011 draft class, Wright continues to be as underappreciated as he was then. He has been selected to just one Pro Bowl and has never been selected as a true All-Pro, though Pro Football Focus has given him second-team honors for the past two seasons.
The relative lack of credit he gets is nowhere near representative of who he is as a player.
Run defense is the starting point for linebackers, and Wright makes run stops galore. Playing the weak-side role in Seattle's defense, he is often tasked with shooting gaps and choking off cutback lanes. He excels at both, using his speed and menacing strength to power through opposing offensive linemen.
He flows naturally in space, and his instincts guide him well when deciding the best time to strike. Once it comes time to finish a play, few are more consistent than Wright. He wraps up and brings his opponents to the ground, occasionally sprinkling in a devastating blow to an unsuspecting or weak opponent.
Wright completes his profile with proficient coverage skills. He doesn't have the elite athletic ability or ball-hawk vision to rack up interceptions, though he'll get physical when the ball arrives. Wright wins in coverage because understands Seattle's system and consistently executes his assignment.
Consistent play and cutting off vertical routes is about all one can ask for out of a linebacker in coverage, and Wright provides that. In all aspects of run defense and pass coverage, Wright can do everything at a high level. — Derrik Klassen, NFL1000 Linebackers Scout
42. Greg Olsen, TE, Carolina Panthers
Greg Olsen was Cam Newton's only consistent target in 2016, as he amassed 1,073 yards and three touchdowns on 80 catches. This put him in rarefied air among tight ends in NFL history. He became the first at his position with three straight 1,000-yard receiving seasons. That's a testament to his consistency and durability, as well as the evolution of the position in recent years.
What has made Olsen such a crucial part of Carolina's offense is his versatility. He lines up everywhere on the field from inside the formation to the X-iso position. He can run any route from quick outs to deep seam routes consistently, and he has the physicality to break free from aggressive coverage at the line. On 122 targets last season, he dropped just two passes, and he caught five of six catchable deep balls thrown to him in 2016 for 185 yards and two touchdowns.
The deep ball really isn't Olsen's forte in Carolina's offense, though—he's the one tasked with opening reads for Newton in the short to intermediate areas, and he does that as well as any tight end you'll see. — Doug Farrar, NFL1000 Lead Scout
41. Janoris Jenkins, CB, New York Giants
As much of a risk as free agency can be, there’s no doubt the New York Giants hit the jackpot after signing Janoris Jenkins in the 2016 offseason. Jenkins turned in his best professional season right after inking a five-year, $62.5 million deal, and there’s no reason to think the 28-year-old is going to slow down anytime soon. He proved to be a lockdown corner in 2016 after promising stretches as a young player with the Rams.
Jenkins has always been one of the best athletes at his position, but his biggest issue in prior years was the lack of eye discipline to not bite on advanced routes. His problems were all self-inflicted and stemmed from fear of misreading double moves. Last year, he appeared more balanced in his backpedals, thus able to recover quicker, and he was more confident and effective in reading routes.
He slowed in his performance over the last month of the season, but a bruised back could be the main culprit of that slight decline. Entering 2017, Jenkins is a bona fide star and hitting his prime physical years. We’re expecting another elite year from him as he helps anchor this superbly talented secondary. — Ian Wharton, NFL1000 Defensive Backs Scout
40. Kelechi Osemele, OG, Oakland Raiders
Kelechi Osemele can be summed rather simply: incredibly powerful. He is a dominant force in short sets, winning as a powerful drive-blocker at the point of attack. At 6'5" and 333 pounds, his physicality is nearly unmatched across the league.
Osemele may play inside, but he has the long frame of a tackle, and he uses those lengthy limbs to establish leverage just about as well as anyone on the interior. Osemele is the definition of a tone-setter with his physical play through the whistle. His presence in Oakland tied together the offensive line last year and helped lead the way to their dominant play up front.
On the knocks side, Osemele doesn't have the quickest or most active feet, which isn’t surprising due to his frame. That said, he's not bad in space for someone his size. He takes good angles to get in position and is efficient with the steps he does take when setting that line. And when he gets a body on second-level defenders in the open field? Look out. Plays on the second level like that may help establish Osemele’s powerful reputation, but his play strength is definitely clear all over his tape, both as an anchor in pass protection and an aggressor in the run game. — Ethan Young, NFL1000 Offensive Line Scout
39. Russell Wilson, QB, Seattle Seahawks
In the 2012 offseason, the Seattle Seahawks needed to address the quarterback position. After losing longtime starter Matt Hasselbeck to the Tennessee Titans in free agency before the 2011 season, they turned the keys over to Tarvaris Jackson, limped to a 7-9 season and missed out on the playoffs. The organization thought it had the answer, bringing in a quarterback from Wisconsin to compete with Jackson for the gig in 2012.
They also drafted Russell Wilson.
While the Matt Flynn decision did not pan out for the Seahawks, the choice to draft Wilson in the third round paid immediate dividends. The rookie from the University of Wisconsin won the job in the preseason and guided Seattle to an 11-5 record and playoff berth. Under Wilson, the organization has been to the playoffs in every season, including two Super Bowl appearances and a championship in Super Bowl 48.
Last year, Wilson posted a solid statistical season, throwing for 4,219 yards and 21 touchdowns against 11 interceptions. However, in terms of yards per attempt and adjusted net yards per attempt, he actually turned in the lowest numbers of his career, although his 7.7 Y/A was still good for sixth in the league, and his 6.56 ANY/A ranked 11th.
Wilson remains a very dangerous quarterback who is difficult for teams to defend. He has the athletic ability to evade defenders in the pocket and keep plays alive with his feet and a knack for keeping his eyes downfield to make secondaries pay in the scramble drill. With receivers such as Doug Baldwin and Tyler Lockett, tight end Jimmy Graham and the emerging Paul Richardson, Wilson has options in the downfield passing game that enable Seattle to stretch a defense from sideline to sideline as well as vertically.
Given the questions surrounding the other teams in the NFC West, Wilson is primed to enjoy another strong year—provided Seattle can sort out the issues surrounding their offensive line, hampered yet again by the recent injury to left tackle George Fant. — Mark Schofield, NFL1000 Quarterbacks Scout
38. Fletcher Cox, DT, Philadelphia Eagles
Cox has alternated between three- and four-man fronts throughout his career with the Eagles, and as a result, he’s had reps at every position from end to nose tackle. He's also shown the ability to be dominant in just about every gap.
Cox put up a career-high 9.5 sacks in Bill Davis' hybrid defense in 2015, and when the Eagles switched to a more conventional 4-3 defense last season under Jim Schwartz, Cox had 47 total pressures—seven sacks, five quarterback hits and 35 quarterback hurries. That placed him third among 4-3 defensive tackles, behind Aaron Donald and Geno Atkins.
As a base three-tech tackle and occasional end in Schwartz’s three-man blitz fronts, Cox showed tremendous strength and penetrative ability to get through frequent double-teams, as well as the speed and agility to move from gap to gap and take the quarterback down from different angles.
That’s why Cox is so high on this list: his proven ability to get to the quarterback no matter the scheme, and despite his status as the frequent center of attention of every offensive line he faces. — Doug Farrar, NFL1000 Lead Scout
37. Cam Newton, QB, Carolina Panthers
After a 2015 season in which he was named the NFL’s Most Valuable Player and led the Panthers to a 15-1 regular-season record and Super Bowl berth, there was no denying Newton’s regression in 2016. His touchdown passes dropped from 35 to 19, his interceptions went up from 10 to 14, and his completion percentage plummeted from 59.8 to 52.9. He was also less of a presence as a runner, dropping from 636 yards and 10 touchdowns in 2015 to 359 yards and five touchdowns in 2016.
Some of that was Newton’s fault—the randomness that has always been part of his passing game showed up too often last season. But it could also be said that aside from tight end Greg Olsen, he didn’t have a consistently productive receiver, and lead back Jonathan Stewart wasn’t quite what he had been in previous years.
Newton didn’t have a lot of first-read openings. He was also getting poleaxed by defenders and ignored by referees who couldn’t seem to tell the difference between a quarterback in the pocket and a quarterback out of the pocket. And, there’s a solid theory that he never really recovered from the beating the Panthers took from the Broncos in Super Bowl 50.
Newton’s team went all out in the draft to try to remedy these issues. They added Stanford running back Christian McCaffrey in the first round and Ohio State speed receiver Curtis Samuel in the second. Both should help the offense immeasurably, and if Newton recovers entirely from offseason shoulder surgery, expect a return to form for one of the NFL’s most dominant offensive weapons. — Doug Farrar, NFL1000 Lead Scout
36. Landon Collins, S, New York Giants
Landon Collins' breakout season in 2016 reminded many why he was a highly touted recruit and star at Alabama. He had an up-and-down rookie year that forced the Giants to alter his role, tailoring it to his skill set as a tremendous presence in the box and as an intermediate punisher. The 23-year-old is now viewed as one of the best defensive weapons in the league with free rein to cause havoc.
The additions of Janoris Jenkins and Eli Apple were two specific moves that directly made Collins’ role transition possible. His spike from one to five interceptions came from the freedom he has to utilize his instincts and read the quarterback. Defensive coordinators dream of having the flexibility to unleash a player like Collins because of his ability to always end up near the ball.
Where Collins trails stalwarts like Earl Thomas and Devin McCourty is in man coverage. He’s still not fully confident in his ability to handle more fluid and explosive athletes in space, thus the Giants rarely ask him to do so. His quest to become one of the best and most complete safeties in the league would take an even bigger leap if he can make progress in that area. — Ian Wharton, NFL1000 Defensive Backs Scout
35. Zack Martin, OG, Dallas Cowboys
When it comes to Zack Martin, the most exciting thing for Cowboys fans is that his arrow is pointing up as much as any lineman on this list in terms of potential development.
His post-bye lull in Weeks 8-11 showcases some of what he can work on, especially from a footwork standpoint. Martin is athletic enough to mirror better than he showed during that stretch, but he needs to get himself in better position and set cleaner bases before contact. If he picks that part of his game up and takes better angles in his approach, he'll likely be in the top 15 on this list next year. Because the highs, especially in the run game, are as good as it gets on the interior.
That isn’t to say Martin isn’t a great player already. He graded as our No. 3 guard last season, and the flashes are simply dominant. But his ceiling is so high that you want to see him become more consistent to reach that. You could argue that Josh Sitton (who finished second in our grading) was better than Martin last year purely based on snaps, yet Sitton isn’t even on this list. That's because these rankings are more about analyzing the players going forward given everything we know.
And from what we know about Martin, the pieces are all in place for a legendary season if he can clean up a couple of things. It's worth noting Sitton did miss some time last season too, and the snap volume difference between him and Martin definitely has value.
As long as Martin can get more consistent in his foot technique, he could be holding the title of the league's best guard this time next year. — Ethan Young, NFL1000 Offensive Line Scout
34. A.J. Green, WR, Cincinnati Bengals
A.J. Green might be the most underappreciated player in the league.
Perhaps it's because he's such a smooth and fluid athlete that he makes everything look routine and easy.
Perhaps it's because he plays for a Bengals team that has failed to get past the Wild Card Round in Green's first five seasons and didn't even make the playoffs this past season. Whatever the reason, Green deserves to be in the conversation for best receivers in the NFL.
The 6'4", 205-pound Green has been about as productive as any receiver in the league since he came into the pros as the fourth overall pick in 2011. He can perform any role asked of him. When the Bengals need a deep shot to spark the offense, Green can win on a go route, split the safeties on a post route or simply go up and get the ball over the top of a defender. Equally, if the Bengals need a conversion on 3rd-and-short, Green is the go-to receiver on a quick slant or hitch, being strong enough to beat any jam at the line of scrimmage and using his large frame to shield the ball from the trailing corner.
He's a quarterback's dream receiver because he gives them a large margin for error. Andy Dalton isn't the best deep-ball thrower in the NFL, but his numbers are boosted by Green's ability to locate and track the ball in the air and adjust his route and body to make a catch. He makes difficult adjustments—like coming back to an underthrown ball or reaching over a defender for a misplaced high throw—look so easy. He does it regularly too, which makes Green one of the best and most underrated receivers in the NFL. — Mark Bullock, NFL1000 RB/WR/TE Scout
33. Brandon Graham, DE, Philadelphia Eagles
One thing you’re going to read a lot in the player write-ups on this list is that sack numbers are wildly overrated when discerning the true value and excellence of pass-rushers. And in 2016, no player embodied this truth more than Brandon Graham.
In 2016, Graham put up just 5.5 sacks—not an impressive total. But his disruptive ability was among the best in the NFL. Per Pro Football Focus, only Olivier Vernon of the Giants had more total quarterback pressures among 4-3 defensive ends than Graham did with his six sacks (PFF counts half-sacks as full sacks), 17 quarterback hits and 60 quarterback hurries. That’s 83 total pressures, a pretty impressive number in any league.
The 6'1", 263-pound Graham uses his lack of height to get under blockers' pads. In Jim Schwartz’s defensive schemes, he’s excellent at aligning himself at an angle to the quarterback and shooting through the gaps right off the snap. He can also bull-rush tackles and present an inside counter, but speed rules his game. Graham led all 4-3 defensive ends with 43 run tackles and 33 run stops.
If Graham is able to turn a few more of those pressures into sacks in 2017, you’ll hear his name a lot more often. But don’t mistake his relative anonymity for a lack of effect on opposing offenses. — Doug Farrar, NFL1000 Lead Scout
32. Andrew Luck, QB, Indianapolis Colts
Before inspiring Capt. Andrew Luck, one of the better parody accounts on Twitter, Andrew Luck was a sure-fire quarterback prospect out of Stanford. Mike Mayock of NFL Network described him as an "amazing athlete" and a "franchise quarterback ... for years and years to come." Rob Rang with CBS Sports wrote that Luck was the best prospect he'd ever seen, and ESPN's Mel Kiper Jr. called him the best quarterback prospect since John Elway. All this added up to a clear-cut first overall selection for Luck by the Indianapolis Colts.
Entrenched as the starter from the start of his rookie season, Luck guided the Colts to playoff berths in each of his first three seasons in the league, finishing with an 11-5 record in each of those campaigns. But in the 2015 season, he struggled through injuries, including both a shoulder injury and a lacerated kidney, and Indianapolis limped to an 8-8 finish. They duplicated that mark last year, and Luck again was bitten by the injury bug, suffering both a concussion as well as the lingering effects of his shoulder injury, for which he underwent surgery this past off season.
When healthy, Luck does everything you could ask for from a franchise quarterback. His footwork, technique in the pocket and throwing motion are textbook, as he uses a very quick, crisp throwing motion and gets the ball out of his hand quickly once he decides on his target. As Mayock indicated, he is an upper-tier athlete at the quarterback position with both the athletic ability to extend plays with his feet and as the play strength to shrug off would-be sacks in the pocket and keep plays alive, all while keeping his eyes glued downfield for a receiver in the scramble drill. Finally, Luck does all the little things well, down to keeping his off hand glued to the football as he moves in the pocket, reducing the chances of a strip sack.
His status for Week 1 is uncertain, but at 27, Luck is entering the prime of his career. He should remain a mainstay in Indianapolis—and on lists like this—for years to come. — Mark Schofield, NFL1000 Quarterbacks Scout
31. Richard Sherman, CB, Seattle Seahawks
From 2013 through 2016, Richard Sherman has been the most dominant cornerback in the NFL. No other pass defender combines his attributes: height, arm length, aggressiveness, the ability to press a receiver at the line to determine inside or outside position, and the ability to lock down any receiver to the boundary. His 2016 statistics—44 catches on 85 targets for 632 yards, 213 yards after the catch, three touchdowns, four interceptions and an opposing quarterback rating of 68.4—aren't much different from previous years.
However, his stats after safety Earl Thomas was lost for the season to a broken leg in early December tell another story. From Week 14 through the postseason, Sherman allowed 16 completions on 27 targets for 216 yards, 89 yards after the catch, one touchdown, no interceptions and an opposing quarterback rating of 97.1. Without Thomas to patrol the deep third of the field in Seattle's base Cover 1 and Cover 3 schemes, every other pass defender was affected, including Sherman, who's best when he's able to trail and bully a receiver on a straight line or in a specific zone.
That's not to say he's regressing at all. Sherman has always been a bit scheme-dependent. He's also not great against receivers who run quick comeback and in-out routes, and he's far more an outside guy than a cornerback who can vary his game in the slot.
When he's given coverage concepts that fit his skill set, Sherman is still a lockdown cornerback. But he falls behind others on our list at his position because they can do more at different spots. Sherman is an indispensable player in his defense. Would he be the same in another? — Doug Farrar, NFL1000 Lead Scout
30. Joe Thomas, OT, Cleveland Browns
While Joe Thomas may have been recently unseated by the likes of Tyron Smith and Trent Williams as the top tackle in the league, you won't find a more consistent elite talent out there, as Thomas has been going strong at the top of his game for 10 years.
Thomas ranked first among all tackles in the agility and movement category of NFL1000 grading last year. Considering he is over 30, that's impressive given that skill set fades first with age. This shows itself the most in pass protection, where he graded second only to David Bakhtiari last season. Thomas' active feet and quick yet precise hand technique are what make him grade out so highly in these categories. His mental processing ability to counter what opponents do to him is the best in the league, and his hands act on what his eyes see so fast that it's hard to beat him without a major speed-to-power trump card.
If there is one limitation in Thomas' game—and this is very nitpicky, as we have him as one of the 30 best players in the league—it's that he doesn't handle powerful bull rushes when defenders get into his body as well as he used to. It's rare for defenders to establish leverage on his body with his quick and violent hands, but in terms of pure strength, that is not how he wins. That said, Thomas is still at the top of his game. He shows little signs of slowing and should continue to be the anchor of the Browns line for years to come. — Ethan Young, NFL1000 Offensive Line Scout
29. Marcus Peters, CB, Kansas City Chiefs
The way Kansas City Chiefs cornerback Marcus Peters has started his career has vaulted him into rare company. No cornerback since 1982 has reached 14 interceptions as early in his career as Peters has. The scariest thing for opposing quarterbacks is that Peters has rapidly become a shutdown corner in addition to possessing terrific ball skills.
There's always risk for corners who will prioritize playing the ball over being a pure cover man, but Peters is dangerously close to mastering the art form. He had just three weeks with a below-average grade in 2016's NFL1000 project and finished the season with our fourth-highest grade of all corners. The 24-year-old is ascending the NFL's best player ranks, let alone cornerback ranks, because of his ability to force turnovers.
The Chiefs' 2017 schedule will bring many challengers to Peters' domain. Key non-divisional matchups include Odell Beckham, Terrelle Pryor, Alshon Jeffery, Antonio Brown, DeAndre Hopkins, Dez Bryant and DeVante Parker. Though Peters will primarily line up at his left cornerback spot, he's sure to see these terrific players enough to give him a tough test. If Peters continues to play as well as he has, he'll have a strong claim to the cornerback throne after the season. — Ian Wharton, NFL1000 Defensive Backs Scout
28. Calais Campbell, DL, Jacksonville Jaguars
Most pass-rushers on the wrong side of 30 don't get major new contracts, because at that age, your average pass-rusher tends to lose his speed and burst. But 31-year-old Calais Campbell is no average pass-rusher.
The veteran of nine seasons with the Arizona Cardinals signed a four-year, $60 million contract with $30 million guaranteed with the Jacksonville Jaguars in March. In somewhat surprising news, he said the Jags plan to use him as a defensive end. Through most of his time in Arizona, Campbell played as a 3-tech or 5-tech defensive tackle in the Cardinals' hybrid fronts with occasional forays out to the edge.
Listed as a 3-4 defensive end in Pro Football Focus' classifications, Campbell led all such players in 2016 with 56 total pressures—nine sacks, 15 quarterback hits, and 32 quarterback hurries. There should be a gigantic asterisk next to that "league-leading" classification because J.J. Watt was out most of the season, but that doesn't diminish how great Campbell is at what he does.
Most 6'8" defensive linemen tend to lose leverage battles, which is why there aren't many 6'8" defensive linemen. But again, Campbell isn't your average player. With his knee bend, tremendously strong upper body and comprehensive array of hand moves, Campbell has been tough to stop throughout his career, and he'll continue to be just that wherever the Jaguars line him up. -- Doug Farrar, NFL1000 Lead Scout
27. Reshad Jones, S, Miami Dolphins
Reshad Jones missed the last 10 games of the 2016 season with a torn rotator cuff, but that didn't stop the Dolphins from signing the 29-year-old safety to a five-year, $60 million contract extension with $35 million guaranteed in March. Why would they do this for a defensive back pushing 30 who's had just one interception in four of his seven NFL seasons?
To look solely at the interception numbers is a discredit to the versatility and complexity of Jones' game. He did have five picks in 2015, his last fully healthy season, and he's got the field range to jump routes from the line of scrimmage all the way back to the deep third. He can cover half the field quickly to deflect a pass, and he can play pass defense at linebacker depth or in the slot. In addition, Jones may well be the best run-stopping safety in the NFL—he moves down on running backs like a missile, and he knows how to shoot gaps to make stops. In just 184 run defense snaps last season, he put up 11 stops.
Then, factor in his abilities as a blitzer. Jones has nine career sacks because of his speed and timing off the edge to add to Miami's pass rush.
Players who do everything required of their positions very well—especially when those things aren't always represented accurately with conventional statistics—often go underrated. Jones shouldn’t be underrated by anybody anymore, and if he's able to stay healthy, he'll play up to that fat new contract. — Doug Farrar, NFL1000 Lead Scout
26. Melvin Ingram, EDGE, Los Angeles Chargers
When I reviewed Melvin Ingram's South Carolina tape in the 2012 predraft process, I was singularly impressed by his production and gap versatility—so much so that I deemed him the best defensive player in his draft class. What stood out to me then was Ingram's ability to get pressure from every gap, from end to 1-tech nose tackle. It's a rare attribute, and he's had it for a long time.
Injuries slowed Ingram's progression in the NFL in his first few seasons, but he put up 10.5 sacks in 2015 and started to look like the player the Chargers selected with the 18th pick in the 2012 draft. Last season he totaled 70 quarterback pressures, fourth among 3-4 outside linebackers, and just about equal to each side of the defensive line—32 from the left side and 38 from the right.
What those static numbers don't tell you is that Ingram is still a multigap disruptor. Especially after they selected Joey Bosa in the first round of the 2016 draft and made Bosa a hybrid pass-rusher with his hand on the ground, the Chargers were tremendously effective when Ingram started in a two-point stance from inside the tackles or right over the center. At the snap, he'd read the gaps and blow through the offensive line to get to the quarterback.
For a stand-up pass-rusher, Ingram is also a high-quality run-stopper—his 19 stops tied him for seventh at his position. He also had 107 coverage snaps last season, which ranks him sixth overall at his position. It took a while for Ingram to transcend his injury issues, but he's now exhibiting every bit of the potential he had in college. — Doug Farrar, NFL1000 Lead Scout
25. Travis Frederick, C, Dallas Cowboys
When you mix elite raw power with great hand placement in a detailed scheme that is also a great fit for that skill set, you get Travis Frederick. Frederick's power is the most visceral of his abilities on tape, but what is so interesting to me is that he doesn't carry it just in his legs, but also up his frame. Winning with power and pure leverage ability as a preventer in pass pro rather than just in vertical attack mode in the run game is a unique skill set. Not many players can throw that at bigger two-gappers, but Frederick has the bench-press ability to pull it off.
At No. 25 overall, Frederick comes in as the top center on our list, and for good reason. You could argue the delta between his play as the top center and the next group of centers is the widest of any position in the league, and that came through in his grading last season as well, especially from a consistency standpoint. Frederick only missed out on grading as a top-10 center in one week last year: Week 17. That reliability at such a high level is rare to see, and I'm sure the Cowboys appreciate it more than anybody.
What is so impressive is that he managed to do it against some brutally tough competition as well. Frederick matched up across from Geno Atkins, Gerald McCoy, Linval Joseph, Mike Daniels and Brandon Williams, and he saw Fletcher Cox as well as Damon Harrison two times each in divisional play. He didn't dip out of a top-10 grade against any of them. With a resume like that, there is no arguing Frederick is firmly the cream of the NFL's center crop. — Ethan Young, NFL1000 Offensive Line Scout
24. Cameron Jordan, DL, New Orleans Saints
If you go strictly by sack numbers, Jordan's 2016 season wasn't that impressive. He logged 7.5 quarterback takedowns last year on one of the NFL's worst defenses. But even a cursory look at his tape will tell the real story—Jordan is one of the most effective and versatile pass-rushers in the game today.
Jordan finished 2016 with 79 total quarterback pressures, according to Pro Football Focus: nine sacks (PFF counts half-sacks as full sacks), 16 quarterback hits and 54 quarterback hurries. Only Olivier Vernon of the Giants and Brandon Graham of the Eagles had more total pressures among 4-3 defensive ends, and Jordan's 79 pressures matched Von Miller's total—it's just that Miller had 14 sacks.
Is Miller a more transformative pass-rusher than Jordan? Off the edge, perhaps, but guys like Jordan are frequently overlooked because they excel in multiple ways. In New Orleans' base defense, you might see Jordan shoot off the left or right edge or generate pressure from a 5-tech tackle position. Given the lack of help he has around him—defensive tackle Nick Fairley was the only other credible pass-rusher along the front, and Fairley's career is likely over due to a heart condition—Jordan's consistency is all the more remarkable.
Add in Jordan's fine run defense—he tied with Vernon for third in run stops among 4-3 defensive ends with 26 run stops—and he's one of a handful of defensive linemen who excel from every gap in every situation.
No matter what his sack numbers say. — Doug Farrar, NFL1000 Lead Scout
23. Luke Kuechly, LB, Carolina Panthers
Concussions are beginning to taint Luke Kuechly's otherwise fantastic young career. He has missed nine games over the past two seasons due to concussions, most recently suffering a season-ending concussion in Week 11 of last season. However, whenever Kuechly is on the field, he is one of the most dominant forces in the league.
Kuechly's skill set for a middle linebacker is rare. He is a premium athlete with a sixth sense for the ball and an offense's intentions. In any given game, Kuechly will have a handful of plays where he is moving toward the point of attack before the ball is snapped, and he closes the gap in a hurry. More than any other linebacker in the league, Kuechly can ruin running plays before they have a chance. He is also excellent in coverage—a trait that separates him from his peers. Carolina's scheme has always asked its linebackers to take deep zone drops and match appropriately, and Kuechly has taken to it as well as anyone could. His natural flow and vision in space, coupled with his physicality, make for a coverage linebacker who can shut down the middle of the field.
The remainder of Kuechly's career will be dependent on his health. Prior to last season, the shortest of his career, Kueckly had a streak of three straight first-team All-Pro selections. He's also been selected as the Defensive Player of the Year (2013), a feat that few off-ball linebackers have ever achieved. At just 26 years old, he's been as productive a linebacker as any in the history of the league. Talent has never been a question for Kuechly. Hopefully he can remain healthy for the 2017 season and beyond. — Derrik Klassen, NFL1000 Linebackers Scout
22. Travis Kelce, TE, Kansas City Chiefs
Travis Kelce gained 862 and 875 yards receiving in his first and second full NFL seasons, but it's not an exaggeration to say 2016 was his breakout year. The Cincinnati alum became Alex Smith's primary target with 85 receptions for 1,125 yards and four touchdowns, leading all tight ends in receiving yards and finishing first at the position in Football Outsiders' opponent-adjusted efficiency metrics.
What makes Kelce's production even more remarkable is that, with Smith at quarterback, he's in a passing game where the deep ball isn't a primary weapon. He had just eight targets in which the ball traveled 20 or more yards in the air, tied for sixth among all tight ends, catching five of those passes for 157 yards. Kelce's deep-ball rate of 7 percent is the second-lowest, behind Baltimore's Dennis Pitta, among tight ends who played at least 25 percent of their team's snaps.
Kelce has to find other ways to make big plays happen. Aligned everywhere from the offensive line to the slot to outside as the Chiefs' "X-iso" receiver, Kelce has developed a tremendous sense of how to bring the ball in while running routes at full speed. He's a yards-after-catch nightmare for defenders; at 6'5" and 260 pounds, he has the size to throw safeties out of his way and the speed and agility to beat cornerbacks with his route awareness. Kelce will run everything from quick screens and slants to deep seam routes and posts, and he's productive with all of it.
As first-round draft pick Patrick Mahomes fights his way to the top of the Chiefs' quarterback depth chart over the next couple of seasons, Kelce could be even more dynamic with a quarterback who can threaten defenses with a consistent deep ball. Right now, he'll have to settle for being the most efficient and versatile pass-catching tight end in the NFL. — Doug Farrar, NFL1000 Lead Scout
21. Drew Brees, QB, New Orleans Saints
Drew Brees has been so good for so long, we tend to take for granted just how amazing he has been, especially since he became the Saints' starting quarterback in 2006. Since that season, Brees leads all quarterbacks in passing attempts (6,949), completions (4,711), completion percentage (67.79 percent), passing yards (53,763) and passing touchdowns (385). While Tom Brady has all the rings and Peyton Manning has collected as many stats as anyone ever will, Brees has stated his own case as an all-timer.
Still, he's frequently left out of the discussion. Part of that is the fact that he's a contemporary of Brady and Manning (as well as newer gunslingers like Aaron Rodgers), and part of it is that, through no fault of his own, the Saints have descended into a vat of mediocrity over the last half-decade. That has just about everything to do with a series of abysmal defenses that have had Brees fighting uphill to play catch-up in just about every game.
His stats over the last five years, when the Saints have gone 7-9 four times, bear that out. Since 2012, Brees has led the NFL in attempts and completions twice and passing yards four times—including each of the last three seasons. It would be nice if, at age 38, he was on a more balanced team, but he's able to use his physical gifts and football smarts to keep the Saints from further trouble. Without him, they might have been lucky to win three or four games in some of those seasons.
There are times when the imbalance takes its toll. Brees wasn't quite as accurate as a deep passer last season—there were instances in which his receivers had to slow up to catch his missiles, and he threw four interceptions to just six touchdowns on passes that traveled 20 yards in the air or more. Losing receiver Brandin Cooks to the Patriots won't help, though Michael Thomas has the potential to be a deep-ball threat.
We're splitting hairs, though. Brees is still devastating in the short-to-intermediate game, and if he wanted to junkball his way to another half-decade in the NFL, he'd still be one of the game's better quarterbacks. He will play out the final year of his current contract with the Saints in 2017, and one wonders if he'll want to bail for greener pastures after that. With the amount of support he's had to extend to his franchise in recent years, it'd be tough to blame him if he did. — Doug Farrar, NFL1000 Lead Scout
20. Aqib Talib, CB, Denver Broncos
It's uncommon for cornerbacks to play as well past their 30th birthdays as Aqib Talib did last season for the Denver Broncos. Talib had arguably one of the best years of his career in 13 games, notching three interceptions and 12 passes defensed. More importantly, he was disciplined and consistent in coverage, which had been an issue for him in previous years.
There's a possibility Father Time hits Talib hard this year, as he turns 32 years old in February, but his improved footwork and eye discipline were among the best in the league last season. We're optimistic he'll continue his great play because of that.
Talib's surrounding cast also helps his projection in 2017. Chris Harris Jr. is the best cornerback in the league, and Bradley Roby is an overlooked but budding star as well. With a terrific pass rush and solid safety play to empower these cornerbacks, they should continue their reign as the top three-corner rotation in the NFL in 2017. — Ian Wharton, NFL1000 Defensive Backs Scout
19. Matt Ryan, QB, Atlanta Falcons
Obviously, Matt Ryan would prefer other catchphrases for Gatorade commercials this year, but in the wake of Atlanta's overtime loss to New England in Super Bowl LI, the Falcons quarterback is using the loss to drive him in the year ahead.
While some may question Atlanta's play-calling down the stretch in that game, Ryan did make the throw that many—Patriots fans included—believed won the game, a long throw as he rolled to his right along the sideline that Julio Jones hauled in over Eric Rowe. That throw highlights some of the growth that we have seen from the Boston College product over the past few seasons, an aggressive decision in a big spot that gives his receiver a chance to make a huge play.
Ryan enjoyed a career season in 2016, throwing for 4,944 yards and 38 touchdowns against only seven interceptions. He benefitted not only from another strong season from Jones but also from the offensive play-calling of former offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan, now the head coach in San Francisco. Shanahan was creative in both scheme and personnel, using empty formations to get favorable matchups (as Atlanta did against Denver in Week 5) or 13 personnel formations (three tight ends) to set up crafty play-action passing designs. Ryan directly benefited from these designs and led the league last year in both yards per attempt (Y/A) with 9.3 and in adjusted net yards per attempt (ANY/A) with 9.03. Those two statistics, relied upon by many to gauge quarterback play, show Ryan was well ahead of his peers during the 2016 season.
With Shanahan's departure, more falls on Ryan's shoulders in the year ahead. But with the core of the offense back for another run at the playoffs, the quarterback should duplicate those numbers. It will also give Ryan a chance to demonstrate whether that catchy slogan is just empty words—or something more. — Mark Schofield, NFL1000 Quarterbacks Scout
18. Marshal Yanda, OL, Baltimore Ravens
The best way to summarize Marshal Yanda is to describe what he went through last year. Yanda, who has had shoulder issues in the past, partially tore his left labrum. He opted to delay surgery, only missing three games, and came back to play through it. Partial tears like this are largely matters of pain tolerance when playing through them, so it's a testament to his toughness that he was back out there so quickly. I can't imagine fighting through the body's natural response to using a torn muscle when trying to grapple an NFL defensive lineman.
After coming back and basically playing with one arm for half the year, Yanda dealt with a position switch to the left side in the middle of the year. Even through all that, Yanda was the best player at his position, and by a big margin too. The man can't be stopped.
On the field, Yanda is a technical master in the both run and pass game. His ability to break down defenders' attempts at establishing leverage is what allows him to stonewall even the strongest two-gappers. His foot technique is extremely efficient too and makes up for any movement deficiencies he has against quicker gap shooters.
Yanda may be the oldest player aside from ageless wonder Tom Brady in our top 20, but interior offensive linemen age better than most other positions. Considering Yanda wins with details rather than pure physical gifts, he shouldn't slow down anytime soon. — Ethan Young, NFL1000 Offensive Line Scout
17. Earl Thomas, S, Seattle Seahawks
If you question Earl Thomas' value to the Seahawks defense, clock just how bad that defense was after Thomas suffered a broken leg last December when Seattle was playing the Carolina Panthers. One play after Thomas left the field, Cam Newton connected with Ted Ginn on a 55-yard touchdown pass to the deep middle of the field as the Seahawks pass defense struggled to keep up.
Last season with Thomas, the Seahawks ranked fifth in Football Outsiders' opponent-adjusted pass defense metrics, per Sheil Kapadia on ESPN.com. Without him, they ranked 30th. This was not a weird coincidence or a confluence of other factors that wrecked the Legion of Boom. Without Thomas, Seattle's Cover 1 and Cover 3 schemes were sunk.
Why is this so? No defender in the NFL has more range than Thomas—he moves from side to side of the field with scary quickness—and his precision in coverage and tackling is a thing to behold for such a quick and seemingly reckless player. Seattle head coach Pete Carroll has told me more than once that Seahawks opponents shy away from deep posts and seam routes when Thomas is in the game because he can run with any receiver and his anticipatory instincts are so finely honed. The fact that Newton went right after Seattle’s defense on the play after Thomas' injury tells you all you need to know.
While Thomas thrives in the deep third of the field, he can also come up and play at strong safety and linebacker depth. For his size (5'10", 202 pounds), he's a ferocious hitter with no fear of collisions.
Thomas is a rare player, which makes his high ranking an easy choice. The Seahawks already know how valuable he is…and how impossible he is to replace. — Doug Farrar, NFL1000 Lead Scout
16. Devin McCourty, DB, New England Patriots
The top-graded safety from 2016 in the NFL1000 project, New England Patriots playmaker Devin McCourty is the shining star in the defending Super Bowl champions' secondary. What earned McCourty the nod over his impressive list of peers entering 2017 is his versatility and well-roundedness, giving Patriots defensive coordinator Matt Patricia freedom to get the most out of the surrounding pieces in front of McCourty. McCourty may not be the best pure center fielder or the most intimidating box defender, but he's still excellent in those roles and can play man coverage on tight ends and slot receivers.
From Week 1 through the Super Bowl, McCourty's remarkable consistency separated him from the pack. With no significant holes in his game and the ability to cover for the shortcomings of others, the 30-year-old deters opposing quarterbacks from targeting his side of the field. He's accumulated just four interceptions in the last three seasons, an indicator that he's protecting teammates over the top, including cornerbacks Brandon Browner and Logan Ryan in seasons past, allowing Darrelle Revis and Malcolm Butler to have their own island assignments.
With Butler, Stephon Gilmore and Eric Rowe to headline the talent at corner for New England this year, McCourty's responsibility as a deep protector should be eased, allowing him to act as an intermediate rover more often. This could lead to more turnovers and boost his national profile. But even if the turnovers remain low, McCourty's impact is as meaningful for this defense as any safety in the league. — Ian Wharton, NFL1000 Defensive Backs Scout
15. Rob Gronkowski, TE, New England Patriots
There are 24 reasons Rob Gronkowski isn't in the top five of this particular top 100. That's the number of regular-season games he's missed over the last five seasons. The last time Gronk played all 16 games was 2011, his second NFL campaign, and the legion of injuries he's suffered since has to be worrisome—especially as he turned 28 in May, and injury histories don't generally get more favorable as time goes by.
That said, when he is on the field (and he missed eight games and the postseason in 2016 with back issues), Gronkowski can lay legitimate claim to being the best tight end in NFL history. Nobody at his position has ever shown the combination of strength and quickness off the line, route awareness, coordination with his quarterback and ability to catch the ball with defenders all over him that Gronk has.
In addition, his blocking (which often goes unnoticed in the whole package) is incredible. If you added 30 pounds to the 265-pound tight end, he could eventually be a starting tackle in the NFL. That's how good he is as a blocker, technique-wise, and how much he wants to be great at it.
Why is Gronk still 15th on this list? Even with those 24 missed games, he has the lead in receiving touchdowns since 2010 with 68. There is always that chance that he'll play a full season, or a near-full season, and torch the NFL as he has before.
The only thing that can stop Rob Gronkowski is Rob Gronkowski's own body, and we'll have to see how that plays out over the next few years. — Doug Farrar, NFL1000 Lead Scout
14. J.J. Watt, DL, Houston Texans
For what he's done in his NFL career already, J.J. Watt may be the best defensive player of all time. The 28-year-old has already been named the NFL Defensive Player of the Year three times.
While Watt missed the majority of last season due to a back injury, his preseason performances lead one to believe 2017 is going to be a bounce-back season, not the beginning of the end. Alongside Jadeveon Clowney and Whitney Mercilius, he might see more one-on-one matchups this season than he's seen in three or four years.
In his first five seasons (2011-15), Watt posted 74.5 sacks. The next closest sack artist was Denver's Von Miller, 14.5 sacks behind Watt. To say the beginning of his career was a historic stretch is underselling it. The hybrid "big end" and pass-rusher is one of the best the NFL has to offer. — Justis Mosqueda, NFL1000 Defensive Line Scout
13. Chris Harris Jr., CB, Denver Broncos
There are two reasons Chris Harris Jr. is the best and most valuable cornerback in the NFL today, and they're simple: his performance as an outside cornerback and his performance in the slot. In an era when the NFL requires more versatility of pass defenders than ever before, no defender is better able to handle the dual—and very different—challenges of those two positions.
While outside cornerbacks must be able to mirror every route run against them and have the speed to take any receiver to the boundary and downfield, slot cornerbacks have to deal with more option routes, quick angles and spatial concepts. Many outside cornerbacks who move to the slot look completely out of place.
Then, there's Harris. Undrafted out of Kansas in 2011, he first made his name on the inside and became the best slot corner in the business. From 2013 through 2015, quarterbacks who threw to Harris' area in the slot enjoyed no touchdowns and suffered six interceptions. He continued that roll in 2016, allowing 25 catches on 46 slot targets for 215 yards. Yes, he did allow a touchdown from the slot, but we'll forgive him that because he was so good on the outside. Last season, he allowed two touchdowns as an outside cornerback, but opposing quarterbacks had a paltry 68.5 quarterback rating when targeting him overall, good for ninth in the league.
For Harris, it's not about one position or the other—he plays them both very, very well. It's the combination of talents that makes him the most important cornerback in the game. — Doug Farrar, NFL1000 Lead Scout
12. Le'Veon Bell, RB, Pittsburgh Steelers
Franchise-tagged by the Steelers for the 2017 season, Le'Veon Bell is at an impasse with his team on a long-term contract. Former teammate Ike Taylor said Bell wants to be paid as the top running back in the league—and as a No. 2 receiver on his own team. While most running backs would be nuts to stake their claim on that particular financial hill, Bell has a point.
Last season, he gained 1,884 yards from scrimmage in just 12 regular-season games, adding 360 more in three postseason contests. Since he came into the NFL in 2013, Bell has put up a resume that has allowed him to set quite a record: No player in NFL history can match his yards from scrimmage per game total of 128.7 through his first four seasons. He was used in more of his team's receiving snaps last year than Julio Jones and Jarvis Landry were in theirs.
As a pure running back, Bell combines a legendary patience at the line of scrimmage with a whipsaw release to and through the hole when gaps open. Other backs who might try to replicate Bell's patience could struggle to gain positive yards at all, but he's able to succeed because he's so good at finding open spaces and breaking contact.
He's also a legitimate receiver who could make a roster at that position alone—something that can't be said of any other back in the league. Bell has a fine understanding of route concepts, releasing into zones and how to get open in the slot and outside. He isn't just taking dump passes from the backfield—he's a true two-position player. He may never be paid as such, but Bell provides as much value to his team as any player in the NFL today. — Doug Farrar, NFL1000 Lead Scout
11. Odell Beckham Jr., WR, New York Giants
Odell Beckham Jr. is one of the NFL's biggest home run threats. He has the ability to score a touchdown and change the complexion of the game anytime he's on the field. He combines speed and quickness that make it difficult for defenders to cover him. His quickness off the line is tough to play press coverage against, but if the corner plays off, he may never catch up with Beckham on a crossing route.
His speed and elusiveness make him a threat after the catch. Against the Eagles last season, Beckham scored a 26-yard touchdown on a simple shallow cross. Because of his speed, he was able to run away from the corner trailing him and past the free safety working down from deep into the end zone without breaking a sweat.
While his speed is a big factor in his success, he has far more to his game than that. As a route-runner, Beckham understands how to set up defenders with varied angles and stride lengths that hide his intentions. He also has an incredible catch radius and has made a name for himself with spectacular one-handed catches.
Beckham's big-play threat forces opposing defenses to account for him on every snap. Rarely will the Giants face a defense that doesn't play two deep safeties. On the occasions that a team will risk playing a single deep safety against Beckham, that safety will always be cheating to Beckham's side of the field. He gives Eli Manning plenty of simple reads as most teams will play basic coverages without much effort to disguise them in fear that Beckham will beat them. Now that Brandon Marshall is playing alongside him, defenses will have to make sure they continue to account for Beckham instead of being distracted by Marshall. Otherwise Beckham will make them pay. — Mark Bullock, NFL1000 RB/WR/TE Scout
10. David Johnson, RB, Arizona Cardinals
In NFL history, two running backs—Roger Craig and Marshall Faulk—have both rushed and caught passes for more than 1,000 yards each in a single season. The current NFL player who has the best chance to add his name to that list is David Johnson, who became one of the league's most versatile players in only his second season. Last year, Johnson gained 1,239 yards and scored 16 rushing touchdowns on just 293 carries, and he added 879 receiving yards and four touchdowns on 80 catches.
Johnson is able to put up these kinds of numbers because he has rare potential at both positions. As a pure running back, he has a great combination of speed, power and agility. And as a receiver, Johnson isn't just taking screens and swing passes out of the backfield—he's a force multiplier in Bruce Arians' offense. He can run routes from the slot and outside, and he's become a crucial part of one of the league's most explosive passing attacks. Last year, he forced 44 missed tackles as a runner and 27 as a receiver. No other player in the league did more to gain yards after contact in different ways.
Johnson said this summer his goal is to join Craig and Faulk in the 1,000/1,000 club. His team supports him in that goal, and Arians has said he wants get Johnson 30 touches a game by any means necessary (he averaged over 23 in 2016). If that happens and it's a balance between run and pass, Johnson will continue his climb to what seems to be an inevitable status as one of the NFL's truly invaluable assets. -- Doug Farrar, NFL1000 Lead Scout
9. Antonio Brown, WR, Pittsburgh Steelers
Receivers who stand 5'10" and weigh 180 pounds aren't supposed to be No. 1 options. Undersized targets tend to fold against press coverage, they're generally faster than they are tough in traffic, and height limitations prevent them from winning jump-ball battles with taller, more aggressive cornerbacks.
Antonio Brown is the exception to every one of those rules. Despite his diminutive stature, the Central Michigan alum, selected in the sixth round of the 2010 draft by the Steelers, has made himself the game's most prolific receiver. Since 2013, Brown leads the NFL in targets with 695, catches with 481, receiving yards with 6,315 and touchdowns with 43.
How is he able to do it? Brown is the NFL's best and most precise route-runner—there are many examples of plays where he breaks cornerbacks' ankles with his quick cuts, and his timing with whatever quarterback he's tied to is always impressive. Moreover, Brown isn't afraid to go over the middle and make the tough catch, and as a pure speed guy, there are few in his class. Last season, he ranked third in the league with 15 catches for 459 yards and eight touchdowns on balls thrown 20 or more yards in the air. Even though he's best deployed on the outside, he ranked second for the Steelers last year in catches from the slot with 14 for 138 yards and a touchdown.
Antonio Brown is the NFL's most dangerous receiver, and he's become that despite his size. — Doug Farrar, NFL1000 Lead Scout
8. Von Miller, EDGE, Denver Broncos
The Denver Broncos' Von Miller is the best true pass-rusher the sport has to offer at the moment. Miller's elite bend and get-off make him a headache for any offensive lineman to play one-on-one. If you're a second late, he's bending around you for a sack. If you widen out as a reaction to anticipating his speed, he'll spin or swim inside you and nail your quarterback.
In his five NFL seasons with no suspension, he's averaged 13.7 sacks a season, nearly a sack per game. From that standpoint alone, his production stands with the most elite the league has to offer. Among pass-rushers currently on NFL rosters, the 28-year-old ranks top-10 in career sacks.
The five-time Pro Bowler and three-time first-team All-Pro is going to have to do it all by himself to start the year in Denver. DeMarcus Ware retired, while Shane Ray and Shaquil Barrett are working through injuries. The good news is that there is no pass-rusher who can pull the weight of being a one-man band more than Miller. — Justis Mosqueda, NFL1000 Defensive Line Scout
7. Julio Jones, WR, Atlanta Falcons
There were some questions over the Falcons' decision to make a big splash in the 2011 NFL draft. They traded up from the 27th pick to the sixth overall selection with the Browns, giving up a number of other picks to do so, and selected Julio Jones. At 6'3", 220 pounds with a 40-yard dash under 4.4 seconds, Jones was seen as ultra-athletic but somewhat raw and in need of development. Now entering his seventh season in the NFL, Jones has established himself as one of the truly elite players in the league, proving the Falcons right for making the move to go get him.
Over the past three seasons, Jones has amassed 4,873 receiving yards and 20 touchdowns on 323 receptions. That's an average of 1,624 yards per season, over 100 yards per game and 15 yards per catch. He's developed far beyond the initial deep threat he was to begin his career. While he still scares the life out of defensive coordinators with his ability to not only run past coverage with his speed but also track and high-point the ball over defenders, Jones has become a truly diverse and multifunctional weapon.
With Kyle Shanahan in charge of the Falcons offense over the past two seasons, Jones was used in a variety of ways. He could take the top off defenses from the outside on post and go routes, but Shanahan would also have him run dig and over routes across the middle. He has the body to withstand catching passes in the middle of the field but also has the ability to continue on his path and create further yards after the catch. Shanahan also started moving Jones around, lining him up in the slot to create mismatches with the defense. Jones now has every route available to him and can just as easily win a shorter route with his route-running ability as he can win a deeper route with speed.
Combined with Atlanta's strong running game, defenses would be forced to pick between having an extra run defender in the box and leaving the second safety deep to help protect against Jones. This is where Jones' impact goes unnoticed at times. With coverage rotated toward him, the Falcons can run Jones deep as a decoy, creating space underneath for the more traditional West Coast offense concepts. Truly elite players make everyone around them better, and that is something Jones does better than any other receiver in the NFL. — Mark Bullock, NFL1000 RB/WR/TE Scout
6. Tyron Smith, OT, Dallas Cowboys
Tyron Smith comes in at No. 6 on our list, and the best way to sum him up is to describe him as the prototypical left tackle of days of old from a purely physical standpoint. A monster at 6'7", Smith looks the part coming off the bus more so than maybe anyone else on this list. Trent Williams edged out Smith by a hair on this list, but both had nearly identical NFL1000 grades from us last season, and trying to pick between the two in a vacuum is splitting hairs between two great players.
Smith was our highest-graded run-blocker at left tackle last year and was only barely edged out by Lane Johnson (in his limited snaps) and Zach Strief in that category among all tackles. His play strength is his trump card in the ground game, and his ability to drive defenders out of his short set separates him in that regard. His dominance in the run game was a big part of Ezekiel Elliott's 1,631 rushing yards last year, not only from a tone-setting standpoint, but also from an efficiency one. Elliott ran for 7.50 yards per carry in the LION (leftside) C gap that Smith occupied last year, compared to 4.84 YPC in every other gap on the Cowboys front, according to Marcus Mosher's charting at Sharp Football Stats.
Smith didn't grade out quite as high in pass protection as he did on the ground, but he's still a big asset there. Smith came in fourth among left tackles in pass protection grading last year, but everyone at the top is close, except for David Bakhtiari who paced the group. The pass protection aspect of Smith's game is a marvel to watch at times though, as it is rare to watch someone so big and long move the way he does. Smith relies on his physical tools in pass pro, as his ability to explode out of phase and defend the outside hip against almost anyone forces most pass-rushers to try to work back inside on him. Smith knows this, though, and each year he has done a better job processing that and being consistent with his hand placement when working back to the ball.
The only question with Smith is if he can stay healthy and durable. He battled with an MCL and bulging disk in his back last year, and apparently his back has still bothered him through camp. It remains to be seen if this issue turns into a more long-term problem. All in all, though, Smith is the definition of blue chip and firmly belongs in the top 10 on this list. — Ethan Young, NFL1000 Offensive Line Scout
5. Trent Williams, OT, Washington Redskins
When he's healthy and on the field, Trent Williams is the NFL's best left tackle, the one with the most enviable skill set. Williams missed four games near the end of the 2016 season after a suspension for a missed drug test—the second time he's been suspended under the league's substance abuse policies—but there's no question regarding his play when he's suited up.
The five-time Pro Bowler still played in 475 passing snaps last season, allowing just two sacks, one quarterback hit and 13 quarterback hurries. Williams' quick and efficient backpedal and ability to mirror the moves of opposing pass-rushers are beyond question despite knee injuries that bothered him all season
What makes Williams truly exceptional is his finishing mentality in the pass and run games. When firing out to take on enemy linemen, Williams drops his targets as well as anyone in the league, and he's got the strength and leverage to take his defender out of the play. That separates him from the league's more athletic tackles, who may not have the same demolition mentality, and Williams is far more agile and accurate than the typical run-blocking bruiser.
The fourth overall pick in the 2010 draft, Williams signed a five-year, $66 million contract extension in 2015 that made him the NFL's highest-paid offensive lineman at the time—he's since been superseded by fellow 2010 draftee Russell Okung. Williams' pay scale is more than appropriate because he's the best in the business. -- Doug Farrar, NFL1000 Lead Scout
4. Khalil Mack, DE, Oakland Raiders
Khalil Mack's first three seasons have been everything the Oakland Raiders could have hoped for. The sack numbers were not there for Mack as a rookie, but he's been a productive and unguardable player since. Mack's 26 sacks through the past two seasons are a league best, topping even the likes of Von Miller. In that span, Mack has been selected as a first-team All-Pro twice. The statistics and honors support what is seen on film.
Flexibility and versatility make Mack who he is. He can approach offensive tackles any number of ways and make them wrong every time. His speed-to-power bull rush can be just as devastating as his inside countermove. Rarely does Mack allow offensive tackles to get a comfortable feel for him and his true speed. The way he can mix up his technique and speed, much like a baseball pitcher, keeps offensive tackles constantly guessing and playing scared, granting Mack an instant upper hand.
Mack isn't just a pass-rush specialist either. He's willing to put in the work in the run game and get physical, and he is damn good at it. Whether he is standing up as a loose edge player or putting his hand in the dirt, Mack has proved he is one of the league's best at setting the edge and forcing running plays where they don't want to go. He can pinch the line of scrimmage to force plays inside or bounce out to the edge to keep plays from getting to the perimeter. Mack's blend of awareness, technique and athletic ability makes him as much a menace as a run defender as he is a pass-rusher. He is a complete edge defender. — Derrik Klassen, NFL1000 Linebackers Scout
3. Tom Brady, QB, New England Patriots
Tom Brady doesn't have many faults. We know that. He's going to go down as the best quarterback of all time. We know that. When they come up, the minor dings in his game are generally corrected over time as Brady's fierce competitive nature and maniacal preparation kick into gear. But it's also true that over the last couple of seasons, Brady's deep throwing wasn't what it used to be. Moreover, he had become a quarterback who was prone to bouts of inaccuracy when he was pressured off his primary throwing spot.
Those issues went away in the 2016 season for two reasons that had nothing to do with the alleged erosion of Brady's skills. The return of longtime Patriots offensive line coach Dante Scarnecchia after a brief retirement shored up New England's protection problems and allowed Brady the time in the pocket he needed. And the acquisition of former Bills receiver Chris Hogan gave Brady a legit deep threat who could beat intermediate man and zone coverage on the way to go and post route completions.
It's not that Brady was the most prolific deep thrower in the NFL in 2016, but when he did go deep, he was much more productive and efficient, completing 35 of 70 passes for 1,164 yards, 11 touchdowns and just one interception. Add the recently acquired Brandin Cooks to New England's receiver corps, and there's no telling what Brady's deep numbers could look like in 2017. Last year for the Saints, Cooks tied for sixth in the league with 11 receptions on passes 20 or more yards in the air for 544 yards and four touchdowns.
Of course, there's more to the art of the quarterback position than deep passing; this is just an example of how the greatest quarterback in NFL history continues to improve his skill set at a time when most at his position are declining severely or out of football entirely. — Doug Farrar, NFL1000 Lead Scout
2. Aaron Donald, DT, Los Angeles Rams
There are a few relevant names to discuss when the subject of best defensive player in the NFL comes up, but if you're not putting Aaron Donald at or near the top of that list, you're missing out. Yes, Rams offensive game film was a cure for insomnia last season, but watching Donald wreak havoc on the other side of the ball is a rare treat.
In 2016, as the point of focus of every opposing offensive line, Donald led all defensive tackles with 82 total pressures, per Pro Football Focus (eight sacks, 22 quarterback hits, 52 quarterback hurries). That pressure total would have put him third behind Olivier Vernon and Brandon Graham among 4-3 defensive ends and second behind Khalil Mack among 3-4 outside linebackers. To put up these numbers as a pure defensive tackle on the majority of his snaps is incredibly rare. He also ranked fifth in the NFL among defensive tackles in run stops with 30, which makes him the most complete player at his position in the league—and the most impactful we've seen in a good long time.
What makes Donald so special? First, he has the quickest move off the snap of any defensive tackle in the NFL—he's past half the offensive linemen he faces before they can get their hands up. Second, he's got every move in the book—he can bull-rush, get by with a rip or swim move, run past a blocker with a foot fake, delay his pass rush from a stand-up position and move with an inside counter and a dip-and-rip. He lines up primarily at 3-tech tackle, though he moves out at times to 5-tech tackle in three-man fronts, and there are shots where he lines up at outside linebacker and defensive end. On the edge, with his hand placement and quickness to the quarterback, he could be a 10-sack guy at the end position alone.
Now, with Wade Phillips as the Rams' new defensive coordinator, Donald will be let loose at multiple gaps in multiple fronts to destroy as many blockers and quarterbacks and running backs as he is able.
Watch out, world. The 2017 version of Aaron Donald might be even better than the one you've seen. — Doug Farrar, NFL1000 Lead Scout
1. Aaron Rodgers, QB, Green Bay Packers
Whether Aaron Rodgers is the best quarterback in football is a fascinating debate and depends on the week in question. When he's rolling on all cylinders, there is no more devastating offensive weapon in the NFL. Rodgers' combination of field-reading, accuracy, mobility and the sheer guts to make throws most quarterbacks couldn't make in their dreams makes him just about impossible to stop when he's on.
Rodgers may never recreate the unprecedented greatness of his 2011 season, when he threw 45 touchdowns to six interceptions and led the league with an average of 9.2 yards per attempt, putting up the highest single-season passer rating in NFL history at 122.5. But he's been on lock when healthy in every season since—he led the league in touchdown passes with 40 in 2016, and there's no sign that he'll decline in the next few seasons.
With that, it's time to start talking about his place among the league's all-time greats. Rodgers is three passing touchdowns away from 300 for his career, and his 72 interceptions will be by far the lowest total among the other 10 quarterbacks who have reached that milestone—Tom Brady is second with 152. Rodgers' Adjusted Yards per Passing Attempt—a Pro Football Reference stat which credits quarterbacks for touchdowns and debits them heavily for interceptions—is 8.5 for his career, which also tops the 300-touchdown club. And since his career passer rating of 104.1 is the best in NFL history, unless he experiences a major unraveling in his later years, he'll stay atop that list as well.
Rodgers has done all this with offensive lines that have ranged from pretty good to abysmal, receiver corps that have seen issues with injury and experience, and a series of passing game plans from head coach Mike McCarthy that have been limited at best over the last few seasons. McCarthy's reliance on isolation routes forces Rodgers to improvise more than he should have to, but there is no more talented or efficient improviser in the league—and there may have never been before.
Put simply, Aaron Rodgers is the best player in the NFL right now. When his career comes to an end down the road (and since he'll turn 34 in December, he's got a lot left in the tank), he may be considered the best player at his position we've ever seen. — Doug Farrar, NFL1000 Lead Scout
Advanced stats provided by Pro Football Focus, unless otherwise noted.