10 players poised to make their first Top 101 in 2016
One of the most intriguing aspects of 2015’s Top 101 players is the amount of turnover from 2014’s list. 58 players on this past season’s edition were unranked the prior season, and 40 are making the first appearance of their careers. As always, injuries and rookies play a part, but there are also plenty of cases of veterans (like Cam Newton and Carson Palmer) having career seasons.
Because our annual list is exclusive to the individual season it represents, there will always be an element of change at the top of the league. With multiple players from this year’s group retiring or changing teams and schemes, not to mention many key players set to return from injury, next year’s version is certain to look considerably different yet again.
The following is a list of 10 players our analysts believe are poised to enter the NFL’s elite for the first time, and the factors that will aid them in their rise to the Top 101 for the 2016 season. Only players who have never made a PFF Top 101 list before were considered.
1. Ezekiel Ansah, DE, Detriot Lions
Ezekiel Ansah appears to be one of the more surprising omissions from 2015’s list. The Lion piled up 14 sacks throughout the year, but over half of his sacks came as an unblocked rusher (three) or of the clean-up variety (six). When taking everything into account, including blocking and how quickly pressure is generated, Ansah ranked 21st among all edge defenders in pass-rush grade, which was still an improvement from his 2014 campaign. He did take a small step back in run defense from his 10th-ranked spot in 2014, and needs to become a more consistent tackler (he was in the bottom five in missed tackles at his position each of the past two seasons). If he continues in this direction as a pass-rusher and can get back to the run-defense levels he showed in 2014, he’s likely to secure a spot on next year’s list. — Matt Claassen, @PFF_Matt
Key Stat: Ansah led all 4-3 defensive ends in pass-rushing productivity between Weeks 6 and 14, with 45 of his 66 total pressures for 2015 coming in this eight-game span.
2. Henry Anderson, DE, Indianapolis Colts
As a third-round rookie, Henry Anderson was on pace to make the Top 101 in 2015 had it not been for a season-ending injury in Week 9. At that point of the season, he was a top-10 3-4 defensive end, with six of the nine players ahead of him at the time ultimately making the Top 101. Anderson stood out the most as a playmaker against the run; his 12.0 run-stop percentage was the second-best for 3-4 defensive ends on the season. Even though he was held to one sack on the year, he was the Colts’ most persistent interior rusher, with a 7.1 pass-rushing productivity. More often than not, defensive linemen improve from year one to year two, so one would hope Anderson is healthy and can build upon his rookie success next season. — Nathan Jahnke, @PFF_NateJahnke
Key Stat: Through the first five weeks of 2015, Anderson ranked second among all 3-4 defensive ends in run stops, tackles, and overall run-defense grade.
3. Denzel Perryman, ILB, San Diego Chargers
Denzel Perryman’s NFL career got off to a sluggish start, with just 65 snaps played before succumbing to a pectoral injury early in Week 7’s matchup against the Raiders. Upon his return in Week 11, his snap count increased significantly, and he immediately flashed his play-making ability against the run. Over the last seven weeks of the season, he was PFF’s top-graded linebacker in run defense, and second in overall grade during that span. Despite playing significant snaps in only eight games, Perryman graded seventh overall for inside linebackers for the entire season. With his rookie season now under his belt and his status as a defensive starter solidified, he should only flourish and continue to make plays for the Chargers. — Jon Abbott
Key Stat: Jets NT Damon Harrison was the only defender with a higher run-stop percentage than Perryman from Week 11 through the end of the regular season.
4. David Johnson, RB, Arizona Cardinals
While David Johnson made a big splash right from the start of last season, he didn’t take over the starting role (or get a significant amount of snaps) until Week 13. Johnson averaged 4.6 yards per carry last season, and was eighth in elusive rating for running backs. He should see a big increase in carries next season, but Johnson will make his biggest impact catching the ball. Bruce Arians loves to get Johnson involved in the passing game, and thinks it’s a mismatch for a linebacker to try and cover the RB. Johnson already proved to be one of the better pass-catching running backs in the NFL last season, finishing third among running backs in yards per route run (2.12). Look for Johnson to increase his production next year, especially in the red-zone. — Jordan Plocher, @PFF_Jordan
Key Stat: Over the last four weeks of the 2015 season Johnson was the highest-graded RB in the NFL.
5. Tyrod Taylor, QB, Buffalo Bills
There was a lot to like about Tyrod Taylor’s first season as a starting quarterback. He finished 2015 with the 10th-best overall cumulative grade among QBs, and his rushing grade trailed only Cam Newton. Taylor played well under pressure last season (his 67 accuracy percentage while under pressure was ninth-best among QBs), and was 10th in deep-passing accuracy (throws traveling 20+ yards in the air). Taylor’s appearance on next year’s list is obviously dependent on health (he missed two games in 2015 with injuries, and top receiver Sammy Watkins missed or was limited in four), but his first year at the helm in Buffalo was certainly encouraging. — Billy Moy, @PFF_Billy
Key Stat: Taylor’s PFF QB rating of 93.18 ranked ninth in the league last season.
6. Jadeveon Clowney, OLB, Houston Texans
After playing just 146 snaps in 2014, Jadeveon Clowney was essentially a rookie last season, increasing his workload to 573 snaps. Obviously he needs to stay on the field, and being significantly limited by injury thus far in his career has been an issue for a player drafted No. 1 overall, but Clowney’s play on the field in 2015 was a huge step in the right direction. He was a solid pass-rusher, notching five sacks, three hits, and 22 hurries. Where he really stood out, however, was against the run. Making 15 tackles resulting in a defensive stop on 211 snaps in run defense, his 7.1 run-stop percentage was the 10th-best among all 3-4 outside linebackers. If he can stay healthy, he can be a player similar in production to Baltimore’s Terrell Suggs, and finally live up to his draft status in 2016. — Gordon McGuinness, @PFF_Gordon
Key Stat: Clowney was eighth among all 3-4 OLBs after Week 10 in total pressures from the right side of the defensive line.
7. Golden Tate, WR, Detroit Lions
With superstar WR Calvin Johnson retiring this offseason, there is going to be a significant amount of pressure on Golden Tate to carry the load in Detroit. Fortunately for the Lions, they caught a glimpse of what Tate is capable of sans Johnson 2014, when the future Hall-of-Famer missed all or parts of six games due to an ankle injury. While Tate’s grades didn’t stand out during this stretch, his 50 catches for 708 yards and three touchdowns were critical to Detroit’s 5-1 record. Tate has led all receivers in missed tackles forced in each of the last three seasons, and considering his projected volume increase, his career-high of 30 this past season is certainly attainable again. — Josh Liskiewitz, @PFF_Josh
Key Stat: Matthew Stafford’s NFL QB rating is over 100.0 in both of the past two seasons when throwing to Tate. The last year his rating crossed 100.0 on throws to Johnson was 2011.
8. Ezekiel Elliott, RB, Dallas Cowboys
There are many reasons why Ezekiel Elliott will likely be succesful in the NFL, as colleague Sam Monson pointed out shortly after the draft. The only question: where do we begin? Its worth first pointing out that the Cowboys’ offensive line led the NFL in 2015 in PFF run-blocking grade, despite the 45th-best rushing grade from RB Darren McFadden. Looking back at DeMarco Murray’s huge final year in Dallas (2014), he had 455 total touches behind what was again our top-graded offensive line, posting easily a league-high 2,261 yards. While it’s hard to imagine the Cowboys putting the ball in a rookie’s hands more than 400 times, Elliott’s outstanding production in every phase of Ohio State’s offense (including the top pass-blocking grade in FBS for RBs in 2015) makes it easy to believe he will be a high-volume player—possibly high enough to be the Offensive Rookie of the Year in 2016. — Wes Huber, @PFF_Wes
Key Stat: Elliott ranked fourth in the FBS in yards after contact in 2015 (1,050); he was second in that category among 2016 draft picks (new Titans RB Derrick Henry had 1,339, but on 105 more carries).
9. Justin Pugh, G, New York Giants
Justin Pugh’s versatility has benefitted the Giants, but perhaps not the player himself. He was frequently shunted from his more natural position of left guard out to left or right tackle in 2015. While Pugh is serviceable out on the edge, he has the potential to be an elite interior offensive lineman. At guard in 2015, he allowed just one sack, one hit, and 10 hurries in 460 pass-protecting snaps. That’s less combined pressures than he allowed in 135 pass-protecting snaps at tackle (13). Pugh has also consistently made an impact in the run game; 2015 was his best year in that facet, as he ranked seventh with an 88.4 grade when opening holes on the ground. As long as the Giants are able to keep Pugh at his natural position inside, he has an excellent chance of cracking the Top 101 next season. — John Breitenbach, @PFF_John
Key Stat: As a guard, Pugh ranked 10th in pass-blocking efficiency in 2015.
10. Bashaud Breeland, CB, Washington Redskins
Breeland had some issues adjusting to the NFL game as a rookie in 2014, but a change in the defensive coaching staff helped open things up for him this past season. For the second straight year, he was third among cornerbacks in run-stop percentage, and through the first 14 weeks of the season, Breeland was our sixth-highest-graded cornerback in the league. This offseason, the Redskins put an emphasis on improving the secondary around him, adding Josh Norman in free agency and Su’a Cravens in the draft, which should give Breeland better matchups in coverage and allow him to continue to be aggressive versus the run. He is a budding, well-rounded cornerback who made our 2015 Pro Bowl team and is ready to take the next step. — Lorin Cox, @CoxSports1
Key Stat: Two of Breeland’s three below-average coverage grades in 2015 came against the Giants and Buccaneers. When matched up against Odell Beckham Jr. and Mike Evans, he surrendered nine catches for 124 yards and two touchdowns; those are the types of matchups he will likely avoid to a large extent in 2016 with Norman now also in Washington.