10 players primed for their first Top 101 appearance next season
Earlier this week, the Pro Football Focus analysis team released its ranking of the top 101 players in the 2016 season. Over half of the players who made the list this year did not make it in 2015, and over two dozen were selected for the first time of their careers. With that said, here are 10 players who have never made PFF’s Top 101, but are trending upwards and could be featured in 2017.
1. Devonta Freeman, RB, Atlanta Falcons
Freeman just missed the Top 101 again this season, but that’s not to say he isn’t already a good player. He increased his yards per rushing attempt mark while eclipsing 1,000 yards rushing for the second straight season. However, Freeman still ranks near the bottom of the list in average yards after contact among 1,000-yard rushers. That in itself is not a huge deal, but he also had the benefit of running behind one of the best run-blocking offensive lines this season, and there were still some others that were better at gaining yards beyond what their blocking provided. Still, Freeman is not far off from that level, and has cemented a key role in Atlanta’s high-powered offense.
2. Lane Johnson, RT, Philadelphia Eagles
Johnson missed much of the season due to his 10-game suspension, but if he had played the whole season at the same level of his six outings, he likely would have made the list this year. Johnson took a big step forward in 2016, performing the best he ever has in pass protection and still being a very good run blocker. In six games, Johnson allowed eight total QB pressures, with one sack and no hits. He recorded a 97.2 pass blocking efficiency, right in line with the top pass protectors this season.
3. Amari Cooper, WR, Oakland Raiders
Cooper had a productive rookie season in 2015, but it was overshadowed by a league-leading 18 drops. That seemed out of character compared to what we saw from him at Alabama, and sure enough, he cut his drops down to five in 2016. Cooper and quarterback Derek Carr made a great pairing for most of the year, although Cooper’s production faded towards the end of the season. There’s still some separation between Cooper and the upper-echelon group of receivers, but he is progressing well and could earn a spot with them next season.
4. Melvin Gordon, RB, San Diego Chargers
Gordon had his work cut out for him as a rookie running behind the worst run-blocking offensive line in 2015. Even though he didn’t find the end zone that season, and had a rash of fumbles that hurt his grade, he actually was pretty productive as a runner, considering what he had to work with. This year, Gordon increased his yards gained after first contact, recorded the fourth-most runs of 15-plus yards, and posted the fifth-highest breakaway percentage (percentage of yards gained on big runs). If he can stay healthy, Gordon is on track to break into the Top 101 next season.
5. Kirk Cousins, QB, Washington Redskins
Washington used its franchise tag on Cousins last offseason to give him a prove-it year in his second season as a starter. Cousins rose to the challenge, improving in several key areas and leading a more effective Washington offense. His 85.9 overall grade ranked eighth among QBs, and he just missed the Top 101 for 2016. If not for a bit of a bad start to the season, he could have graded even higher—from Week 6 through the end of the regular season, Cousins was the fifth-highest graded quarterback in the league. Still, he has room for improvement in areas, such as when he’s under pressure.
6. Jalen Ramsey, CB, Jacksonville Jaguars
Like most first-year players, Jalen Ramsey had some rookie struggles at times, but in the end, his first pro season was a success. He finished the year on a high note, and if his play over the final weeks of the season is a sign of things to come in the future, then he will be worth the high draft pick for the Jaguars. In Jacksonville’s final five games of the season, Ramsey was targeted a ridiculous 43 times, allowing just 17 catches and no touchdowns while intercepting two passes and breaking up another nine. Opposing quarterbacks had a 37.8 passer rating when targeting Ramsey in those games. Only 12 cornerbacks had more than 11 combined interceptions and pass breakups on the season, and Ramsey matched that mark in just five games.
7. Nick Perry, EDGE, Green Bay Packers
Nick Perry wasn’t bad during the four years of his rookie contract, but he certainly did not live up to his first-round selection, either. The Packers brought him back on a one-year deal, and he finally had the breakout season that Green Bay had been waiting for. Unfortunately, he suffered a hand injury late in the year, which caused him to miss some time. When Perry returned, he wasn’t quite as effective as he had been leading up to the injury. Through Week 12, Perry had earned the 10th-best overall grade among all edge defenders, and had more run stops than any other 3-4 outside linebacker. As the lone free agent realistically expected to hit the market on this list, it will be interesting to see if he ends up back in Green Bay or signs elsewhere, and how he is utilized.
8. Brandon Linder, C, Jacksonville Jaguars
Not much went right for the Jacksonville offense in 2016, but Brandon Linder was one bright spot among the rest. After missing much of the 2015 season due to injury, Linder moved from guard to center in the offseason and performed even better than he did as a rookie. He tied for the eighth-fewest pressures allowed by a center, with 13. While he wasn’t the elite run blocker like PFF’s top-three centers, he was at the top of the second tier and greatly improved in the latter half of the season.
9. Cody Whitehair, C, Chicago Bears
With two top-tier guards already on the Bears’ roster, there were few expectations for the rookie to play at all this season, much less at a new position. An injury to Hroniss Grasu forced the Bears to move Whitehair to center, and it actually worked out very well. Whitehair earned the third-highest pass blocking grade among NFL centers, and had just one game where he allowed multiple QB pressures. He was a bit up and down as a run blocker early on, but overall was pretty successful. Whitehair only got better as the season continued. Over the second half of the season, he was the top-graded center in pass protection and improved from the 16th-best run blocker to seventh.
10. Chris Jones, DI, Kansas City Chiefs
Jones was a player that several PFF analysts really liked coming out of Mississippi State. He had a limited role early on as a rookie, although he earned more playing time as the season progressed. Jones still made a significant impact, however, and was the most productive defensive lineman on a per-snap basis for the Chiefs. He tallied 42 total QB pressures and had the highest per-snap pass-rushing productivity among 3-4 defensive ends that played at least half of their team’s pass-defense snaps. If the Chiefs expand his role next season and he can continue to perform at the same level—or higher—Jones will work his way up the rankings for interior defensive linemen.