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