101 best players in the NFL right now
[Editor’s note: PFF is excited to introduce Senior Analyst Sam Monson‘s 101 best players in the NFL right now, highlighting the game’s best players entering the 2016 season.]
Up until now, the PFF Top 101 has always been about looking back at the season that was, evaluating nothing beyond the 21 weeks of football action from the regular and postseason games to tell you who the best-performing players were for that particular year.
This list is going to be something a little different, and will become a new feature at PFF intended to look beyond that narrow band of play, and instead start to quantify who the best players are in the league right now from all of the available data.
The original Top 101 list will still return at the end of the 2016 season to highlight the best players of the year, but it will follow hot on the heels of the conclusion of the NFL season; this new 101 list will instead feature in the summer months, when we can start to put PFF data towards the aim of quantifying who the best players are currently, not just who had the best prior season.
Like the other list, this one does weight all positions equally, so if a run-stuffing nose tackle is that good, he can feature ahead of a Pro Bowl quarterback, even if he can never hope to approach the value of the latter player in today’s NFL.
With those qualifiers in mind, here are the 101 best players in the NFL right now.
1. J.J. Watt, DE, Texans
What is left to say about J.J. Watt? We are past the point of naming him an elite talent, or even a generationally-great player. What we are now talking about is just how far up the list of all-time greats he will land by the time he calls it a career. Watt has the ability to go down as the greatest defensive player the game has ever seen, and only longevity can secure that title at this point. In terms of a run of elite play, he has already been as good as anybody, and certainly better than anybody during the PFF era (since 2007).
As if it needed to be pointed out, Watt is the best and most dominant player in football right now. With 90 total pressures, he led the league in 2015 despite battling through an injured hand and groin, also leading the NFL with a ridiculous 119 pressures the season before. Over that timespan, he also batted down 18 passes and has been a monster in the run game. He has been so good that the Texans have been able to transition him into almost a true edge rusher—at 290 pounds. Aaron Donald came frighteningly close to matching Watt’s levels of play, and actually surpassed him in terms of 2015 season alone, but Watt has been doing this for four straight seasons now, and that proven consistency means he tops this list.
[More from Sam Monson on why J.J. Watt is the best player in football right now here.]
2. Rob Gronkowski, TE, Patriots
If J.J. Watt is the most dominant force in football, Rob Gronkowski is the most dominant force on offense. He may not be the most valuable player, though I think there’s a decent argument that he has been more valuable than Tom Brady in some seasons, but he is the best. He is so far ahead of his peers at the position that the competition is essentially playing for the second-best spot in the TE rankings on an annual basis. Even the best receiving weapons at the position can only hope to match what Gronk can do, and none of them can come close to his blocking prowess, which would hold up in the smash-mouth football days of decades ago. Gronk is one of the league’s better blocking TEs at a time when that role has become almost a specialist position, allowing the Patriots to be truly diverse on offense and pose matchup problems simply by having an elite, prototype, traditional TE. Gronk is the league’s most unstoppable force on offense, and the second-best player in football.
3. Antonio Brown, WR, Steelers
It’s ironic that the best receiver in the game is not a 6-foot-3, 220-pound physical freak in the way so many of the top players are. Antonio Brown is 5-foot-10, under 190 pounds, and was a sixth-round draft choice, but he is at the top of the game and virtually uncoverable. Broncos CB Chris Harris Jr. hadn’t allowed a touchdown for 36-straight games before he faced Antonio Brown this past season. Brown beat him for two scores in that game, as well as 12 catches and 137 yards. He is able to take apart some of the best cover men in the game, and would have put up simply mind-bending numbers had his quarterback stayed healthy this season. His projected numbers with a fully-healthy Roethlisberger would be 158 receptions (all-time record), 2,114 receiving yards (all-time record) and 15 touchdowns. He may not be the physical freak that teams are looking for when they draft a receiver, but he is the best receiver in the game right now playing the best football of his career.
4. Aaron Donald, DT, Rams
Aaron Donald was the best player of 2015, but he doesn’t have the résumé that the players ahead of him on this list own. There’s nothing to say that Donald can’t achieve that kind of staying power, and his career trajectory is in almost perfect lock-step with J.J. Watt’s over the same time period, but until he does it, it would be premature to leap him above players that have shown elite-level performance over many seasons. It took years to convince people just how good Watt was, and Donald is experiencing the same issue of denial right now. Having come to accept Watt as a generationally-great player, it seems illogical that we would see a second one come along just a couple of years later rather than in, you know, another generation. However, it seems that may be happening with Donald. He was the most disruptive defender in the NFL in 2015, generating 79 total pressures and actually getting pressure at a higher rate than Watt on a per-snap basis, despite playing almost exclusively inside, while Watt played the majority of his snaps on the edge where pressure comes more readily. With only one year of play at this level, keeping Donald at No. 4 is the right move, but if he can repeat that production in 2016, the battle for the No. 1 spot becomes intense.
5. Luke Kuechly, LB, Panthers
Today’s NFL is a passing landscape, so linebackers are now coverage specialists that also make an impact in the run game, rather than the reverse. Kuechly is the rare player that changes the odds in coverage, and did so on countless occasions in 2015. Take the interception he snagged against Tony Romo by running stride-for-stride with TE Jason Witten downfield before picking off the pass, for example. QBs looking up and seeing their TE singled up with a linebacker vertically is like Christmas for them. The ball is in the air practically as soon as they identify the matchup, but Kuechly was the mismatch there, not Witten. Including the playoffs, QBs targeting Kuechly had a passer rating of just 48.7; targeting other linebackers in the league gave an average passer rating of 102.1. Kuechly is an elite coverage linebacker, but also flows to the football like few others, and is one of the best run defenders at the position, also. But for missing games due to a concussion, he would have had a very strong case for Defensive Player of the Year, despite the season from Aaron Donald.
6. Khalil Mack, OLB, Raiders
As scary and impressive as Aaron Donald’s career has begun, Khalil Mack’s hasn’t been far behind as the Raiders’ primary edge-rusher. During his rookie season, Mack was a monster against the run, and a pretty good pass-rusher, but in his second campaign, he was dominant in all areas. He finished the year with 82 total pressures, two batted passes, and four more defensive stops than any other edge defender. He was by far the highest-graded edge defender at the end of the regular season, and only Von Miller’s insane playoff run pushed him close in PFF ratings by the end of the postseason. Despite having three fewer games to generate positive plays, Mack ended the year with an overall grade of 95.8, ahead of Miller’s 94.0, and was the third-highest-graded defender in the league. Given that his career is just two seasons old, there may still be more to come in 2016 and beyond, but Mack is already unquestionably one of the NFL’s best players.
7. Von Miller, OLB, Broncos
Von Miller’s regular season was, believe it or not, relatively unspectacular, but he showed in the playoffs that, at his best, he is one of the most devastating weapons in the game. In the postseason alone, he notched six sacks and 23 total pressures—and the Broncos’ Super Bowl run was just three games long. If you include Denver’s Week 17 game, a playoff-like must-win encounter against San Diego with seeding on the line, Miller averaged 7.5 total pressures over his final four games; he has averaged 85 in each regular season in which he played a full schedule. Miller has the speed, quickness, and agility that most blockers just can’t hope to contend with, and maybe the most impressive bend around the corner of any pass-rusher in the league. He may be the single biggest reason that the Denver Broncos are Super Bowl 50 champions right now, and that’s why he’s shooting for a blockbuster contract.
[More from Mike Renner on why Denver owns the NFL’s best pass defense here.]
8. Aaron Rodgers, QB, Packers
He had a 2015 season to forget, largely, but Aaron Rodgers is still the best quarterback in the game. We saw glimpses of magic last season, with ridiculous Hail Mary passes and the trademark darts on the run that few players can hit, but overall he ended up buried in the quicksand of trying to rescue an underachieving offense all by himself. When he has the weapons to help, Rodgers has abilities that few quarterbacks can emulate, firing accurate passes over seemingly any distance from any angle in the pocket or outside of it. Rodgers makes smart decisions and has the lowest interception rate in NFL history, and with Jordy Nelson back in action in 2016, should resume his spot as the best passer in football.
9. Julio Jones, WR, Falcons
If Antonio Brown is the best receiver in the game, Julio Jones isn’t far behind him. Jones is more of the prototype athletic-freak receiver that the NFL has been attracted to for years, and he can physically impose himself on defensive backs like few other players in the game. He has the physicality to go up and dominate at the catch point, but also the blazing speed to torch guys who can’t get their hands on him or allow him too much space in his route. In 2015, he tied Brown for the most catches (136), but edged ahead in yardage (1,871), and caught 70.5 percent of all of the passes thrown in his direction.
10. Le’Veon Bell, RB, Steelers
Le’Veon Bell only carried the ball 113 times last season before being shut down, and yet he ended the year with the fifth-best rushing grade in the NFL if we lower the snap threshold far enough to include him. He averaged 3.4 yards per carry after contact, which is more than C.J. Spiller averaged in total yards per carry. When you add in his work as a receiver, there is no more complete back than Bell, who can play all three downs and be a real threat in every facet of the game in a way other backs on this list can’t be. Right now Bell is the best RB in the game, and we could see something spectacular if he is on the field every game in the 2016 season.
11. Joe Thomas, OT, Browns
Joe Thomas has been the benchmark of pass-protecting left tackles since he entered the league, and shows no sign of relinquishing that crown anytime soon, even if there are at least rivals to his throne. Thomas has led the league in pass-protection grade in four of the past five seasons, and has usually had an excellent run-blocking grade to pair with that, despite quarterbacks that haven’t always been a friend to their offensive linemen in terms of hanging onto the ball or dancing around the pocket. Despite nine seasons in the league, Thomas shows no sign of slowing down, and his 2015 season was one of his best. Everybody wants to anoint Tyron Smith as the league’s best tackle because he plays on a better team and offensive line overall, but for the moment, Joe Thomas still has that crown by a whisker.
12. Tyron Smith, OT, Cowboys
It’s testament to his play that Tyron Smith is essentially neck-and-neck with Joe Thomas at this point in his career. Thomas should be a Hall of Fame player when he hangs up the cleats, and is playing some of the best football of his career nine seasons into it—and Smith is right there with him. If Thomas is a slightly better pass-blocker, Smith is the better run-blocker on a line that could probably pave the way for you or me to gain 1,000 rushing yards behind it. In 2015, Smith was by far the highest-rated run-blocking tackle in the league, and he allowed just 22 total pressures in over 1,000 snaps of action as a pass-blocker. Maybe 2016 is the year he finally overtakes Joe Thomas as the best OT the game has.
13. Marshal Yanda, G, Ravens
Marshal Yanda is the best guard in football and one of the best offensive linemen, period. He now has back-to-back seasons of outstanding play, and strong grades in every season of his career. He has never graded negatively overall in either run-blocking or pass-protection over a season, and this past year surrendered just 17 total pressures over 1,155 snaps. He was the best-graded guard in the league by a reasonable distance, and at this point, is the standard by which all other guards need to measure themselves.
14. Richard Sherman, CB, Seahawks
Where once Darrelle Revis reigned, now Richard Sherman is king. Sherman is the best cornerback in the game, but he hasn’t necessarily been able to maintain his best play every season. He has the length and size that has now become the object of desire for every NFL team looking for corners, and at times it seems completely impossible to fit the ball past him. We talk about catch radius for players on offense, but Sherman’s interception or pass-breakup radius on the other side is ridiculous. He is also a strong run defender and can shut down even the game’s best receivers. The only criticism of his game is the occasional lapse that can lead to big plays, but on a down-to-down basis, there is nobody better.
15. Tom Brady, QB, Patriots
Remember when some idiot said that Tom Brady was a declining force back in 2014? Who was that guy? Oh yeah, right… Anyway, since then, Brady has been playing arguably the best football of his career, and there may be no quarterback with a greater mastery of his offense. Despite a disaster of an offensive line, Brady gets the ball out of his hands faster than almost any other passer (second-fastest average time to throw in 2015, behind only Andy Dalton), and consistently hits the right guy for quick, short gains. All of the top quarterbacks in 2015 were dealing with some issue beyond simply playing football, and Brady may have had the most working against him in terms of poor protection and losing so many of his offensive weapons to injury. Yet he was still playing as well as anybody, and was one of three passers to top 90.0 in overall grade and edge into the elite, blue-chip designation. Declining? Apparently not.
16. Justin Houston, OLB, Chiefs
Despite being injured and missing time in 2015, Justin Houston posted almost as high of a regular season grade as Von Miller managed on more than 200 fewer snaps. Only Miller’s obscene playoff run pushed him ahead on overall grade, but Houston is one of the league’s most dominant edge-rushers. Over the past two seasons, he has either led or been second in PFF’s pass-rushing productivity metric, which measures pressure on a per-rush basis; he’s a very good run defender, as well. Houston now has positive grades in every area of the game PFF measures in four straight seasons.
17. Odell Beckham Jr., WR, Giants
There is nobody in the game that attacks the football in the air the way Odell Beckham Jr. does. His pre-game warmup highlight reel is one of the most ludicrous things you will ever see, and he has the ability to pluck the ball out of the air when it is anywhere near him, taking the defensive back out of the picture on plays even when they are in pretty good coverage. His game against Josh Norman and the Carolina Panthers will only be remembered for the way Beckham lost control of himself entirely, though it’s worth noting that he burned Norman deep early in that game—only to drop the ball—and later scored a touchdown on the CB. This is a matchup we will now see twice a year after Norman’s move to Washington. Beckham is one of the league’s best receivers and only entering his third season.
18. Tyrann Mathieu, DB, Cardinals
Whether you want to call him a safety or a cornerback, Tyrann Mathieu is one of the league’s best defensive backs. He is a true playmaker on defense and has the ability to move around and cause matchup problems for offenses, putting them on the back foot for once in a league that usually forces defenses to react, not the other way around. Last season, he was having a Defensive Player of the Year kind of impact before missing the final two games of the regular season and the playoffs, leaving a big hole that the Cardinals weren’t really able to fill. He is a versatile playmaker, capable of excelling in the run game, in coverage, and generating pressure on the blitz, and regardless of what position he gets labeled as, he’s just a fantastic player.
19. Cam Newton, QB, Panthers
People jumped on the Cam Newton MVP bandwagon at midseason some time, but I don’t think he really earned the award until the playoffs. Even in the Super Bowl against a suffocating defense, he played pretty well, but is only ultimately remembered for failing to fall on a fumble and acting petulantly in the press conference afterwards. The bottom line, though, is that Newton is still improving—year after year, and even within his MVP season. We are looking at a freak athlete at the quarterback position that can be a very real addition to the Panthers’ rushing attack in a way no other QB can, but also complete some of the best passes in the league. We have seen play that should put Newton higher on this list, but not for long enough. If he continues to get even better in 2016, though, we will see something truly special.
20. Michael Bennett, DE, Seahawks
From being undrafted, to barely attracting offers as a free agent when he left Tampa Bay, Michael Bennett has become one of the league’s most dominant defenders. Against the Minnesota Vikings in the playoffs, he was regularly destroying their running game almost single-handedly with immediate penetration and power. Bennett has been regularly among the best-graded edge rushers in the league, and can moonlight as an interior rusher for the Seahawks, disrupting plays from outside or inside on the defensive line. Including the playoffs, he notched 91 total pressures in 2015, and is one of the few defenders in the league capable of taking over games in his best form.
21. Ben Roethlisberger, QB, Steelers
With Roethlisberger playing last season, Antonio Brown averaged 9.7 catches per game, 132 yards, and scored all of his receiving touchdowns. When he was injured, Brown managed just 4.3 catches and 59 yards per game, despite being pretty much uncoverable. Roethlisberger would have been firmly in the MVP conversation in 2015 had he played in every game, and even against the league’s best defense in the playoffs, he was able to put up 339 passing yards and complete 64.9 percent of his passes. His career has been remarkably consistent, and he shows no sign of dipping in form, while the rest of that class of 2004 have begun to struggle. Roethlisberger should be seen as one of the best quarterbacks in the NFL, not just a top-10 guy.
22. DeAndre Hopkins, WR, Texans
The first thing in DeAndre “Nuk” Hopkins’ favor is probably the list of quarterbacks that have been throwing him the ball. The list of Houston passers has been so bad that they handed Brock Osweiler $72 million—based on seven games as a starter—just to get out of QB-purgatory. With that limitation, Hopkins still posted 1,521 yards and 11 scores from 111 receptions. Those are great numbers regardless of who is throwing the ball, but when the list was comprised of well-below-average NFL quarterbacks, it’s all the more impressive. Hopkins just has that gift of being able to get open despite not having the blazing speed to do it by athleticism alone. He emerged as a top-level receiver, and did it with very little help, with the chance of improving in 2016.
23. Geno Atkins, DT, Bengals
Geno Atkins is getting somewhere close to his best again after a knee injury derailed his career. 2012 Geno Atkins recorded the best defensive tackle performance we have seen outside of Aaron Donald for years, but his first year back from that knee injury in 2014 was just a shell of that. In 2015, another year removed from the injury, we started to see that guy again. Atkins is quick and plays with obscene leverage, able to knife through the line or just drive blockers into the backfield by getting under their pads. He trailed only Donald in defensive tackle grading in 2015, and notched 82 total pressures to lead all DTs.
24. Chris Harris Jr., CB, Broncos
Chris Harris Jr. should be the new poster boy for undrafted free agent success in the NFL. Since coming into the league, he has developed into one of the NFL’s best cornerbacks, and yet often still doesn’t get the recognition he deserves, or is even seen as the best corner on his own team. He is a three-time PFF All-Pro (the last three consecutive seasons), and despite a couple of ugly outings this past year covering Antonio Brown, still had a fine season, and was instrumental in Denver’s postseason run, despite dealing with a shoulder injury. Harris is undersized and undrafted, but he’s just a high-quality talent.
25. Russell Wilson, QB, Seahawks
Russell Wilson is so much more than the game-managing quarterback he often still gets accused of being. He brings a rushing dimension to the offense and the threat of the read option, but it’s usually just there to keep defenses honest, and not something he looks to do unless it’s the smart option. As a passer, he is an accurate and smart quarterback, and his receiving corps is only improving around him. The state of the Seattle offensive line will remain a concern for Wilson going forwards, but his ability to play in the face of that kind of protection only enhances his case as a top quarterback. Over the past two seasons, he has either been first or second in the percentage of snaps on which he faced pressure.
[More from John Breitenbach on why Russell Wilson is a top-five quarterback here.]
26. Ndamukong Suh, DT, Dolphins
Ndamukong Suh is a victim of his own financial success. The contract Miami handed him means no matter how well he plays, he is never likely to be anything but “overpaid” and squeezing their salary cap. In reality, though, 2015 marked his best season in the NFL, where the only real black mark on his play was a farcical level of penalties (18, or twice as many as any other interior defender). Suh was excellent against the run and generated 60 total pressures and five batted passes, even if it didn’t translate to sack numbers. Suh, at this level, is in the conversation to be the best defensive lineman in the league not named J.J. Watt, but he will always be looked at in the light of his contract, which is rich even for a player at that level.
27. Travis Frederick, C, Cowboys
Oftentimes in the NFL, offensive linemen can develop an undeserved reputation that lives with them for most of their careers. That is most definitely not the case with Travis Frederick, who is deservedly seen as one of the best centers in the game, if not the best. In 2015, he didn’t allow a single sack and was beaten for just 10 total pressures all season. In 2014, he allowed just one sack, and in all three seasons of his career, has earned excellent run-blocking grades. He may not physically dominate players at the point of attack, but he is excellent at getting into position and leveraging his man away from the point of attack, doing just enough to create a running lane and springing the RB to the second or third level.
[More from Sam Monson on why 2015 was Suh’s best season to date here.]
28. Fletcher Cox, DE, Eagles
Newly-minted Fletcher Cox is one of the best defensive linemen in football, and a guy I think could be even better going forward in a new defensive scheme. While two-gap football was all the rage a decade ago, very few teams ask their linemen to control a blocker and defend the gap to either side of him anymore, but the Eagles asked Cox to do that a lot in previous seasons. Despite those responsibilities affecting how much he could attack and affect play in the backfield, he notched 77 total pressures in 2015 and graded well in both the run and pass game. In a more attack-minded one-gap system in 2016, I think Cox could explode into a superstar wrecking-machine on that D-line.
[More from Matt Claassen on Fletcher Cox’s extension with Philadelphia here.]
29. Harrison Smith, S, Vikings
Safeties have become pretty specialized in recent years. With so many teams trying to run a Seattle-esque system of cover-1/cover-3 looks, teams have split their safeties into rangy, single-high coverage specialists and powerful in-the-box run-stuffers that can man up with backs and TEs. Harrison Smith represents the other way of doing things: a versatile safety that is good at everything, without being a specialist at anything. Smith allows the Minnesota defense to run pretty much any coverage they want, knowing that they will have a safety capable of excelling in his role on the back end. This past season he graded well in every facet of play PFF measures, and he has that tough-to-define ability to be a tone setter for the defense with the plays he makes at times.
30. A.J. Green, WR, Bengals
A.J. Green is one of those players that always produces more than I expect him to. He has the occasional struggle on tape in a way you don’t tend to see from Antonio Brown or Julio Jones, but he makes up for that by being incredibly difficult to jam at the line or control physically. It’s no surprise that 2015 was his best season from a grading standpoint, with Andy Dalton also enjoying his best season of play, giving Green a chance with more passes than he had in the past. Green caught 69.9 percent of the passes thrown his way, and had just three drops from 123 targets.
31. Jamie Collins, LB, Patriots
Jamie Collins represents the new breed of athletic linebacker that can do it all for a defense. In each of the past two seasons, he has graded well in every area of play PFF measures, and his grades have been among the best at his position. He can defend the run, blitz, and cover with almost equal effectiveness and ability, and has the athleticism to match up with more than just big tight ends and running backs out of the backfield. Collins is the rare linebacker that can execute tough assignments against wide receivers and give the Patriots a little more personnel flexibility when it comes to reacting to offensive packages, allowing them to stay in base defense a little more if they so desire.
32. Patrick Peterson, CB, Cardinals
At his best, Patrick Peterson is one of the league’s top shutdown corners, or as close as anybody can get to that term in today’s NFL of pass-happy rules. He typically tracks the best receiver an offense has, and this past season when doing that, he allowed just 50 percent of all passes thrown his way to be caught (including playoffs) and was beaten for just three touchdowns, two of which came in the postseason and one of which was a Hail Mary. He didn’t allow more than four catches in a single game all season long, and was beaten for more than 50 yards just once. He also held Antonio Brown to two catches for 26 yards on six targets when they met, albeit when Brown didn’t have Ben Roethlisberger throwing him the ball.
33. Earl Thomas, S, Seahawks
Earl Thomas is the prototype free safety for the modern-day NFL that everybody else is trying to replicate. He is one of the few single-high free safeties with the range and instincts to still affect plays from that spot in the deep middle of the field and actively squeeze throwing lanes and affect windows. There may be no more important player to the success of that Seattle scheme because of the way he can affect plays that most other free safeties can’t. Thomas is part of the reason that scheme has been less successful when taken elsewhere by former Seattle coaches, because nobody has yet found their version of Earl Thomas that can make the whole thing tick.
34. Anthony Barr, LB, Vikings
Eyebrows were raised when the Vikings selected Anthony Barr in the first round, and even more when they declared that he would be playing linebacker in their 4-3 defense. It was assumed that he would play some kind of Von Miller/Bruce Irvin hybrid role that would see him off the ball on base downs, and then rushing the passer in sub-packages, but he has fully transitioned to a conventional off-the-ball linebacker and done so incredibly smoothly, to the point that he is now one of the best in the game. Barr plays the run well, and is a natural threat on the blitz given his pass-rushing history, but he has also played very well in coverage, showing a natural feel for underneath zones and the ability to close quickly on plays in front of him. If Luke Kuechly is the best off-the-ball linebacker in football, Barr is one of a number of players with a claim to be the next best.
35. Zack Martin, G, Cowboys
Zack Martin may not be the best guard in football, but he’s pretty close. There is no weakness in his game, as he can run-block well and pass-protect with the best, putting him at the sharp end of the PFF guard rankings every year. In 2015, he allowed just one sack to go with the one he surrendered as a rookie, and has averaged just 13.5 total pressures per season, fewer than one per game. His 2015 season was a model of consistency, barring two hiccups in the middle of the year where he struggled to contain Fletcher Cox and Ndamukong Suh—two players ahead of him on this list.
36. Josh Norman, CB, Redskins
Josh Norman became one of the league’s best corners in 2015, and for a good portion of the season, quarterbacks were better off statistically just throwing the ball into the turf every play than they were challenging Norman by throwing it into his coverage. But for the game against Odell Beckham Jr. that became more of a brawl than anything to do with football, he would have been PFF’s highest-graded cover corner. Including the playoffs, Norman allowed a passer rating of just 58.1 when targeted and wasn’t beaten for a pass longer than 36 yards all year.
37. Terron Armstead, OT, Saints
The emergence of Terron Armstead has been one of the more underreported success stories from the Saints over the past year or so. In each season, he has seen his grade improve, and in 2015, was the third-best tackle in the game behind All-Pro players Joe Thomas and Tyron Smith. His run-blocking and pass-protection were both excellent and, despite a pass-happy Saints’ offense, he allowed just 20 total pressures over the year. Armstead is only going into his fourth season in the league, and is still getting better, with a real chance to take another step forward and join Thomas and Smith as the best players at their position.
38. Kawann Short, DT, Panthers
It’s a great time for interior defensive studs, and Carolina has one of the best in Kawann Short, who has become the more dominant of the two defensive tackles that the Panthers drafted in 2013. Short has improved with each season in the league, and actually improved his grade against both the run and pass game in each season, too, marking an impressively consistent developmental curve. 2015 was by far his best season, and he was a major reason the Panthers’ defense was so good, and a big factor in the team reaching the Super Bowl. Short has only been improving, and going into his fourth season, that development may not be finished. He could be even higher on this list in 2017.
39. Andrew Whitworth, OT, Bengals
How do you sum up how consistently excellent Andrew Whitworth is (and has been) for the Cincinnati Bengals? Once again, he was among the best run-blocking tackles in the game, and though he did surrender four sacks in 2015, he gave up just 20 total pressures. Over the past two years, he has given up just 30 in total and averaged less than a pressure per game on the edge against some of the league’s best pass-rushers. Given his age, his time at the top at left tackle may be drawing to a close, but there is a very good chance he could have produce a solid season inside at guard to finish his career, where he would likely be an All-Pro player given the cameos we have seen from him in that spot.
40. Carson Palmer, QB, Cardinals
Carson Palmer is another player whose case rests on one season of obscene play. It’s tough to oversell just how good Palmer was in 2015 before injuring a finger and having the worst playoff performance from a quarterback PFF has ever graded. In that Arizona passing attack, Palmer had the league’s highest average depth of target, and his expected inaccuracy rate given the passes he was attempting should have been the highest in the league. As it turned out, he was the best on intermediate and deep throws, and if I knew I was getting that guy in 2016, he would by vying for a place inside the top-five on this list. The issue is that those performances were so far off his career performance graph that it’s tough to have any idea where his 2016 will fall. Palmer has been good before, but in the eight years before that 2015 performance, he had been pretty good at best. It’s tough to buy into the idea that he is suddenly the best QB in the game, even if he has found an offense that perfectly suits his style.
[More from Mike Renner on Carson Palmer’s role in Arizona’s deep-passing attack here.]
41. Pernell McPhee, OLB, Bears
Pernell McPhee is an interesting story of a player that has transitioned from the interior to a legitimate edge-rusher over his time in the NFL, and his first season in Chicago was a fine one. He notched 67 total pressures and also graded well against the run. As you might expect from a player that spent a lot of time inside, on tape he is visibly too powerful for a lot of blockers tasked with containing him, and he regularly tosses players aside to make stops and disrupt plays. That Bears’ defense is heading in the right direction, and McPhee could prove to be even better going forward if they can surround him with a bit more help.
42. Drew Brees, QB, Saints
Drew Brees isn’t quite at the same level he was a few seasons ago, but he is still an excellent quarterback and probably isn’t being given enough recognition for the level of his play given his age. Instead, everybody is focused on his contract and exactly how and when the divorce from New Orleans will happen to liberate their salary cap from his burden. 2015 may have been his worst season in a long time, but he still completed 68.3 percent of his passes, threw for 4,870 yards and 32 touchdowns, and had just 11 picks to finish the year with a passer rating of 101.0. When that’s a relative down year for you, things are pretty good.
43. Allen Robinson, WR, Jaguars
Going back and looking at former Penn State quarterback Christian Hackenberg’s freshman season during the pre-draft process was a reminder of just how good Allen Robinson is. There may be nobody better in the game at winning 50/50 jump balls and attacking deep passes at the right point without alerting the defensive back to the ball’s arrival than Robinson, and he was doing the same thing for Blake Bortles in 2015. 37 of Robinson’s 142 targets came on deep (20+ air yards) passes, and he gained 672 yards on those plays. There is a lot to be said for giving your receiver a chance to make the play, but the odds swing dramatically in your favor when the receiver in question is Robinson.
44. Jason Verrett, CB, Chargers
The highest coverage grade in 2015 among corners that played primarily on the outside was from Jason Verrett. He also had an outstanding grade as a rookie, albeit in a season cut short by injury. The numbers and tape suggests that Jason Verrett is on the verge of becoming one of the league’s best cornerbacks if he can stay healthy and on the field. That is the big knock on his play; in two NFL seasons, he has missed time in each, and has been a little lightweight against the run. However, in terms of pure coverage play, there have been few better CBs over the past couple of seasons.
45. Jordy Nelson, WR, Packers
The biggest endorsement of Jordy Nelson’s play might be looking at what happened to Aaron Rodgers and the Green Bay Packers’ offense in 2015 when he wasn’t there. Yes, they still made the playoffs and even won a game there, but this was a unit that looked lost. In 2014, Nelson trailed only Antonio Brown in overall grade, and was fifth in receiving grade. He has speed, size, and the ability to hit the right spot and be on the same page with Rodgers in a way few other Packers receivers can. Nelson has the trust of one of the best quarterbacks in the game, and it allows him to get passes thrown his way that aren’t chanced on other targets. In 2014, he caught 67.1 percent of the balls thrown his way, and forced 14 missed tackles after the catch.
46. Alshon Jeffery, WR, Bears
Alshon Jeffery was a difficult player to place in these rankings because it is more on potential and upside than proven, long-term production. He was excellent in 2013, and even better in 2015 when he was on the field, but he played just 516 snaps due to injury. On either side of those injuries, he was an elite receiver who was grading as well as any wideout in the game, but the fact remains that he did it for only around half as long as most other players, so what we are looking at is more of an elite run, rather than an elite season. Jeffery is a big, physically-imposing receiver who has a large catch radius and is difficult to contend with at the catch point; if he can show that level of play consistently going forwards, he could leap up this list.
47. Mike Daniels, DE, Packers
When you watch the Green Bay defense for any length of time, the first player to catch your attention is Mike Daniels. In the way you don’t need to be told who the draft prospect is on a small-school team, he jumps off the tape in the first few plays and separates himself from the rest. Daniels just plays at a different level than the rest of the Green Bay defense at the moment. He grades consistently well against both the run and the pass and is always making a nuisance of himself along the trenches, screwing up blocking assignments and affecting plays even when he isn’t the guy to make the eventual stop. His grades have improved each season of his four-year NFL career, so who knows what 2016 holds.
48. Cameron Jordan, DE, Saints
Some players seem to be hit-and-miss in the NFL, bouncing between excellent seasons and average ones, seemingly unable to string a series of high-quality years together. Cameron Jordan looks like one of those players. Some of it can be explained by shifting schemes in New Orleans, and therefore shifting roles and responsibilities for Jordan, but not all of it. 2015 was Jordan’s best season, at least from a PFF grading standpoint, and while he didn’t match the sack totals of 2013, he was generating pressure faster and more effectively, and was better against the run. If you could guarantee that version of Jordan every season, you would have an elite playmaker along the defensive front, but the looming worry that he might regress back to just above-average keeps him this low in the rankings.
49. Josh Sitton, G, Packers
Josh Sitton is the league’s best pass-blocking guard. He may not be quite the best guard overall, but in a passing league, being the best pass-blocker is a pretty useful trait. His blocking in that area is so good that the Packers elected to kick him out to left tackle when injuries bit deep last season, rather than go further down the tackle depth chart. He wasn’t exactly a rousing success there, but he did a lot better than several starting tackles in the league, let alone guards moonlighting on the edge. At guard, Sitton has allowed just four sacks in three seasons of play, and allowed just 35 total pressures over the same timespan, averaging fewer than one per game. And, as an added bonus, his run-blocking is pretty good, too.
50. Sheldon Richardson, DE, Jets
Sheldon Richardson brings with him the issue of off-field baggage, but focusing purely on what he has done on the field, you find an excellent player. Like his teammate Muhammad Wilkerson, Richardson was asked to play far more as an edge threat this past season as the Jets tried to get all of their best interior players on the field at the same time. Richardson has shown the ability to disrupt and penetrate as well as anybody in the league, and has done so against both the run and pass. 2014 was his best season, the one year where he excelled in both phases of play. He is somewhat at the mercy of the Jets using him more conventionally, but as an interior disruptive force, there are few better players.
51. Dez Bryant, WR, Cowboys
Dez Bryant may have more potential than any other wide receiver in the game. He certainly has the talent to be right up there with Julio Jones in the pantheon of uncoverable players, but the Cowboy has more low-points than Jones does, and has never been quite as consistent, despite dominant stretches of production. 2014 was his best season yet, and the year that he got closest to consistently realizing that potential. The question now, though, is how close can Bryant get to that 2014 season going forward?
52. Dont’a Hightower, LB, Patriots
Dont’a Hightower doesn’t have a bad season to his name in his four-year NFL career, and over the past two years, he’s been exceptionally productive. Hightower is a very good run defender and consistently defeats blocks as well as makes stops. He has never missed double-digit tackles in a season, and has always graded well against the run, but also covers better than he is given credit for. The Patriots use their inside linebackers on the blitz a lot, and Hightower has proven to have a talent for getting after the quarterback, notching 28 total pressures in 2015. In coverage, he has also allowed only one touchdown over the last two years.
53. Muhammad Wilkerson, DE, Jets
2015 may not have been Muhammad Wilkerson’s best year, but when you consider what he was asked to do by the Jets, it was the one that most impressed me. With Leonard Williams on board and demanding snaps with his play, the Jets deployed Wilkerson as more of a full-time edge player, asking him to become the primary source of pass-rush on the perimeter rather than move around or apply it up the middle. For most players of his size, this would be hopeless, but Wilkerson notched 79 total pressures, seventh-most in the entire NFL, and was a consistent force for New York all year. There aren’t many players with his versatility and ability to perform along the entire defensive line.
[More on Muhammad Wilkerson’s value to the Jets from Eric Eager here.]
54. Malcolm Jenkins, S, Eagles
There isn’t a better advertisement for the impact a defensive scheme can have on a player than Malcolm Jenkins, who has been a completely different producer in Philadelphia than he ever was in New Orleans. Over the final three seasons of his New Orleans career, Jenkins earned a cumulative PFF grade of -23.8; in two years with Philadelphia, he has posted a cumulative grade of +27.7. Jenkins has shown to be a much better run defender than he ever did for the Saints, cutting down on the number of missed tackles and proving to be a very capable coverage defender all over the field. Sometimes all it takes is being freed from an ill-suited scheme.
55. Devin McCourty, S, Patriots
It’s easy to forget that Devin McCourty was also an excellent cornerback before the Patriots moved him to safety, and probably would be again if he was asked to move back. That kind of versatility is rare in today’s NFL, and is part of why he has been able to perform so well in any defensive scheme in nearly any role on the back end for New England. McCourty has cornerback speed and change of direction skills that allows him to play tough assignments in quarters coverage or lined up deep against out-breaking routes, but he also patrols typical deep zones very well and makes it tough for opposing quarterbacks to fit passes in against him.
56. Malik Jackson, DE, Jaguars
There’s a reason Malik Jackson got big-time money from the Jaguars in free agency, and it wasn’t just because they had cash burning a hole in their pockets. Jackson has been one of the league’s most dominant interior players over the past two seasons, and about the only knock on his game now is that he had a lot of quality players around him in Denver to make that easier. That much is true, but he has now shown he can do it as a rotational player or full-time starter, and had two of his best games of the season in the AFC Championship and Super Bowl. We’ll see just how much influence the rest of that Broncos’ defense had when he plays without it in 2016, but I think it’s doing him a disservice to lean too heavily on that point.
57. T.J. Lang, G, Packers
We’ve known that Josh Sitton has been one of the league’s best guards for a while, but his teammate T.J. Lang has quietly joined him in that conversation. Lang has now recorded back-to-back excellent seasons and only allowed 20 total pressures over 18 games in 2015. In fact, he was only responsible for his quarterback hitting the turf with a sack or hit on two occasions this past season, and was an impressive run-blocker to go along with that pass protection. He may not have the fearsome size of some other guards in the league, but Lang has been impressive over the past two years and deserves some more recognition for becoming one of the better guards in football.
58. Derrick Johnson, LB, Chiefs
There have been few more consistent linebackers over the time PFF has been grading games than Derrick Johnson. In multiple schemes, Johnson has been an excellent player against the run and in coverage, and has been one of the best linebackers of his generation. Coming back from a bad injury in 2014 to have the kind of season he did in 2015 shows that, despite his age, he is far from done. Only four players had more defensive stops than Johnson did this past season, and none of those four could match his performance in coverage, where he wasn’t beaten for a single touchdown all year despite being thrown at 63 times.
59. Eric Berry, S, Chiefs
Eric Berry’s comeback story of beating cancer and getting back to his best on the field last season was an amazing feat, but it doesn’t define the career of an excellent player beyond the comeback story. Berry is a talented safety who can line up in the box and cover TEs one-on-one in Kansas City’s man-coverage schemes. He is strong against the run and provides the kind of matchup weapon on defense that teams are searching for. Strong safeties in today’s NFL need to be able to cover, as well, just in a different way to those playing deep zones as free safeties, and Berry can do that as well as any of them.
60. Greg Olsen, TE, Panthers
As a pass-catching TE, there may be no one better than Greg Olsen in the league. In fact, in that area, Olsen is even a pretty close match for Rob Gronkowski. He may not have Gronk’s ability to break tackles after the catch, but he is a sharper route-runner, can match him in spectacular catches, and can be just as productive. The issue is that while Gronk is one of the better blocking TEs in the league, Olsen is not. Last season, the Panther had the worst run-blocking grade in the league at the TE position, and the only player in the same ballpark was his teammate, Ed Dickson, a notoriously poor blocker. Blocking has become less of a requirement for TEs than ever before in today’s NFL, but at a certain point, the poor play is harmful to the team overall.
61. Sean Lee, LB, Cowboys
Few players have had their careers blighted by injury as much as Sean Lee, who is one of the league’s best linebackers when he is on the field, but so rarely stays there for any length of time to prove it. In the past six seasons, Lee has played 2,910 total snaps, or fewer than Luke Kuechly has managed over the last three, despite missing games with a concussion this season. Lee has excellent instincts, the athleticism and smarts to hang in coverage in today’s NFL, and is consistently in the right place at the right time in the run game, grading positively in that area every season of his NFL career. Only injuries keep him this low on the list.
62. Richie Incognito, G, Bills
The reason for his NFL exile prevents this from being any kind of feel-good story, but Richie Incognito’s 2015 season was one of the more impressive comeback tales of recent memory. Out of the league entirely for a year, he returned as an All-Pro caliber player at guard for the Bills. If anything, it shows the impact being 100 percent healthy at the start of the season can have for an NFL lineman, as well as the toll years in the trenches can have. Incognito’s run-blocking was dominant, and his pass-blocking was pretty good. On 2015 form alone, he deserves to be higher on this list. But the question becomes how far will that performance slip now that he doesn’t have a year off before rolling into the season?
63. Trai Turner, G, Panthers
The Panthers’ offensive line was supposed to be the team’s Achilles heel a year ago, but thanks to players like Trai Turner, it was actually a pretty good unit, especially inside. Turner had a decent rookie season, but became dominant in his sophomore campaign, adding powerful run-blocking to pass protection that was already pretty good. He has now allowed just one sack over two years, including the playoff run this past season, and notched five games of perfect pass protection in 2015. Turner didn’t really have a bad game in 2015, and has quickly become one of the league’s best guards. It’s easy to forget the fact that his career is just two seasons old, given how impressive his progression has been.
64. Gerald McCoy, DT, Buccaneers
Injuries have derailed Gerald McCoy’s progress as one of the best and most disruptive defensive tackles in football. He has shown he is capable of being a one-man wrecking crew on the inside for Tampa Bay, which is a good thing, because he was doing it without much help for awhile, but injuries have been an issue. McCoy hasn’t missed that much time in recent seasons, but his play has declined as he battled though injuries, and we haven’t seen his best form for awhile. I’m keeping him this high on the list because of how good we know he can be, but it’s time we need to start seeing it again, because players like Aaron Donald have moved the bar for 3-technique, penetrating defensive tackles, and McCoy needs to respond.
65. Emmanuel Sanders, WR, Broncos
Emmanuel Sanders is a slick route runner, capable of some spectacular catches, and the kind of player that can have huge production when a decent quarterback is capable of finding him with the football. The only issue is that he isn’t a physically dominant player capable of bailing out a bad quarterback’s inaccurate passes the way some of the best receivers in the game can. Because of this, Sanders is more reliant than some on viable quarterback play and will suffer more quickly than most when he doesn’t get it. If I’ve got that viable QB, there are few receivers I would want on the team before Sanders.
66. Joe Staley, T, 49ers
2012 was a good year for the 49ers and for Joe Staley. That season, the San Francisco had arguably the league’s best roster, and Staley was arguably the best tackle in football. The 49ers have since crumbled around him, and while Staley hasn’t quite hit those 2012 highs since, he is still one of the better tackles around. This past season, he graded well in all areas PFF measures and had good run- and pass-blocking grades for the fourth consecutive season. Staley may never be the best tackle in football again given his advancing age, but he remains a very good OT despite the bad team around him.
67. Olivier Vernon, DE, Giants
Olivier Vernon could end up pretty much anywhere on this list or off it altogether, depending on how much stock you put in an eight-game stretch of play that was as good as anybody in football in 2015. Over the final eight games of the season, he posted 57 total pressures, which is more than most players managed in a season, and was the best-graded edge defender in the league in that span. The only guy who was even close was Khalil Mack, and those two were massively clear of the chasing pack. If you knew you were getting that Vernon going forward, he would be a top-10 player in the league. But that was so far above his career baseline that you almost have to treat it as an anomaly rather than a sign of the player he now is. The amount of stock one puts in that stretch can greatly affect his place on this list.
68. Leonard Williams, DE, Jets
There were few rookie 2015 seasons more impressive than that of Leonard Williams’ campaign. He was particularly impressive against the run, but also showed more as a pass-rusher than some at PFF (me) had been expecting. He wasn’t elite in this area, but 53 total pressures from an interior defender is no small achievement, even over 827 snaps. Williams showed the potential to be another elite defensive linemen for the Jets, and the only question is whether he continues at this pace in year two. If he can, he could quickly vault up this list and become one of the best in the game, because what he has shown already is excellent play from a guy as young as he is.
69. Matt Ryan, QB, Falcons
Ah, Matt Ryan. It’s tough to exactly feel sorry for a millionaire NFL quarterback, but Ryan probably takes more undue abuse than most, simply because he’s never likely to be Tom Brady. It’s like the No. 3 overall pick of the draft either becomes the next Tom Brady, or he’s junk, with nothing in between. Ryan, like most players, occupies the space in between, but he’s a lot closer to Brady than he is a waste of a roster spot. Yes, he will make some poor decisions and has cost his team in places, but he has also had excellent games and been instrumental in big wins that he had no business securing, and consistently grades well when you look at each and every snap. Ryan may never be among the best couple of quarterbacks in the game, but he’s a very, very good player despite his flaws.
70. Kelechi Osemele, G, Raiders
Kelechi Osemele isn’t just a good guard, but a good lineman overall, with the ability to play tackle at a pretty high level, too. He has the ability to be elite at guard, though, and the Raiders adding him in free agency was a big addition. He has ranked in the top-five for run blocking at the position in each of the past two seasons, and though his pass blocking wasn’t as good in 2015, he really only had one bad game in 2015 (on opening day against Denver). Osemele has the power that people love to see from interior linemen, and the size that goes along with it. He still gets beat more often than you want to see from the best players at his position, and that keeps him this far down the list, but his potential is elite.
71. Darius Slay, CB, Lions
Things didn’t go well for the Detroit Lions in 2015, but one bright spot was the play of CB Darius Slay, who enjoyed one of the best cornerback seasons in the NFL, and was legitimately “shutdown” for stretches. There were five games in 2015 where Slay allowed fewer than 10 receiving yards, seven games in which he allowed two or fewer catches, and two games in which he didn’t give up a single catch. About the only negative in his game was that he was beaten for the occasional big play, but on a down-to-down basis, there were few players tougher to beat. Slay’s performances have now improved dramatically each year, and another step forward in 2016 would place him among the elite. This step has typically been the toughest for corners to make over recent years, as backed up by our next player on the list.
72. Desmond Trufant, CB, Falcons
Desmond Trufant, I think, has the potential to end up much higher on this list, but he took an unexpected step backwards in 2015. He was still good, but that was the year I was expecting greatness from him, and it didn’t happen. Trufant was very good against the run in 2015, but his coverage slipped a little. He allowed 57.1 percent of passes thrown his way to be caught, and surrendered two touchdowns while only picking off one pass and breaking up another five. He ended the season with just the 25th-highest PFF coverage rating, whereas the season before he had been sixth and trending upwards. 2016 is a big season for Trufant in determining who he really is as a corner—a player with elite ability, or just another good-not-great cover guy?
73. K.J. Wright, LB, Seahawks
There aren’t many players more overlooked and overrated in the league than K.J. Wright. He may be universally accepted as being pretty good, but you’re not going to find many people that will tell you he’s the best linebacker Seattle has—except here. Bobby Wagner gets all of the press, but Wright has been the better player for some time now, and is one of the league’s best linebackers, period. His best asset is probably his coverage ability, which is more and more important for linebackers in today’s league, and allows him to be on the field as much as possible and still make an impact against any kind of offensive personnel package. Last season, he played 97.5 percent of the team’s defensive snaps and recorded one of the best coverage grades in the league.
74. Eric Weddle, S, Ravens
Eric Weddle has been one of the game’s best safeties for years, and maybe the most complete—able to play deep and in the box with equal competence while in San Diego. He also had to act as traffic cop for a team full of youth and inexperience in the secondary on regular occasions over the past few seasons. 2015 was far from his best year, but in a Baltimore secondary with maybe less responsibility on his shoulders, he could return to the player we saw in previous seasons. Weddle’s experience and versatility allows a defense to do a lot on the back end in terms of coverages, and as long as he doesn’t have to worry about everybody else’s job, too, he should be able to make a big impact for the Ravens.
75. Steve Smith Sr., WR, Ravens
Perhaps it’s because PFF has been grading 2006 games as part of an offseason project, but I think people are forgetting just how good Steve Smith is. Even fast-forwarding nine years, Smith was putting up grades right in line with Antonio Brown and Julio Jones over the first half of the 2015 season before injury struck. We seem to be just assuming that because of his age and the severity of the injury that Smith will be a washed up version of the great receiver upon his return, but I think he is the type of driven player that will still be a force when he is back on the field. Smith has been overcoming the odds for his entire career, and he’ll have one more opportunity to do so.
76. Jurrell Casey, DE, Titans
There are few more disruptive interior forces than Tennessee’s Jurrell Casey, who has now been dominant in both a 3-4 and 4-3 defensive front. He is a versatile player that can move around and disrupt both the pass and run, and he has an awareness you don’t usually see from most interior defenders who can play with blinkers, only seeing their little island of influence. Casey sees the whole field and will make plays for other defenders when most interior players would never even see that the play was there to be made. He has posted over 50 total pressures in each of the past three seasons, and graded well against the run in each of them, too.
77. Robert Quinn, DE, Rams
The performance we saw from Robert Quinn in the 2013 season may have been the best single-season of edge-rushing PFF has seen since we began grading (2007). He was completely unblockable at times, and able to get around the tackle and hit the quarterback in 1.5 seconds—or about as long as it took him to complete his drop and look up. The problem is that it’s getting longer and longer since that season. In 2014, he was good, but far from as spectacular, and 2015 was much the same story, with the addition of lost time through injury. We know Quinn is capable of obscene greatness, but we have to go back more than two years since we last saw it, and until he returns to that level, I can’t put him much higher on this list.
78. Adrian Peterson, RB, Vikings
With the ball in his hands, Adrian Peterson can do spectacular things. This is a player that will soon start knocking off all-time greats on the all-time rushing list, but more and more his game is being defined by what it lacks. The fumbling problem from his early career came back to haunt him again in 2015, and in a league that is ever more pass-oriented, the Vikings don’t trust him to pass-block or pass-catch, and consequently often don’t even have him on the field in their most crucial game situations. If I had to hand a back the ball three times to get 10 yards, there may be nobody I’d want hand off to than Peterson, but that isn’t today’s NFL, and he is too lacking in other areas to be at the sharp end of this list.
79. Doug Baldwin, WR, Seahawks
Over the past three years, only Dez Bryant has scored more touchdowns in a single season than Doug Baldwin did in 2015, and yet somehow he is still being criminally underrated by most. Baldwin caught 78.8 percent of the passes sent his way this past season for over 1,000 yards, and those 14 scores came alongside just two dropped passes all season. He can play inside and out, which is an important trait for a receiver in today’s NFL, especially in that Seattle offense. While he may not have the physical gifts of some of the game’s most imposing receivers, he consistently gets open and catches passes—and isn’t that kind of the whole point?
[More from Ben Stockwell on why Doug Baldwin is still an underrated weapon here.]
80. Cameron Wake, DE, Dolphins
If you could promise me Cameron Wake would enter the 2016 season as 100 percent of the player we saw before he went down with an Achilles injury, he would be among the first 20 players on this list. However, at his age, and with that severe of an injury, it seems more likely than not that he will experience some kind of drop in production and performance. At his best, he is one of the most athletically destructive pass-rushers in the league, terrorizing blockers that just don’t have the athleticism to match his movements or the recovery ability once he catches them off balance. He has recorded a strong pass-rushing grade every single season of his career, and even a diminished Wake should still be a very good player in 2016.
81. Brandon Marshall, WR, Jets
Part of the reason the Jets have played hardball with Ryan Fitzpatrick this offseason is the number of heave-and-hope passes he threw that Brandon Marshall was able to rescue and turn into something good for the offense. Marshall has always been a tough receiver to live with physically, and in many ways, has always been the biggest cap on his own career, with mental lapses and concentration drops a constant theme. In 2015, he had 11 drops, marking the seventh season in the last nine that he has topped double-digits in that regard. He has also fumbled the ball 15 times over that time span. Marshall is a spectacular receiver, but the flaws in his game keep him out of the conversation for the very best at the position.
82. Lamar Miller, RB, Texans
The Miami Dolphins criminally underused Lamar Miller, but hopefully the Houston Texans won’t make the same mistake, having signed him to a healthy contract in free agency. Miller has earned very strong rushing grades in each of the past two seasons, despite never being allowed to carry the kind of load some of the other elite backs get. The Dolphins also rarely allowed him to be much of a factor in the passing game, but he flashed the ability to be a big-playmaker in that area, too. He has runs of at least 85 yards in each of the last two seasons, and a catch-and-run of 54 yards in 2015 to go with them. Miller is an excellent back who should finally get the chance to prove it over a big-time workload.
83. Jarvis Landry, WR, Dolphins
Jarvis Landry isn’t just one of the league’s best slot receivers, but he adds some extremely impressive work on special teams to that resume. Landry returns both kicks and punts for Miami, and was our highest-graded return man in the entire league in 2015, scoring one touchdown as a punt return man and doing more work than his average on kicks would suggest. Landry has excellent hands, impressive route-running, and the ability to make people miss in short areas. He forced 40 missed tackles on offense this past season, which is more than many starting running backs, and the most among wide receivers.
84. Reshad Jones, S, Dolphins
There may be no better run-defending box-safety in football than Reshad Jones. He led the league by a distance in run-defense grade at the safety position in 2015, and he has now earned strong grades in consecutive seasons. He has also proven to have the ability to generate pressure on the blitz, and the only thing keeping him away from the top half of this list is a relative weakness in coverage. This is a passing league, and for all the good he does in terms of blitzing and run defense, his coverage has not been good enough to put him among the very best players in the league.
85. Brandon Marshall, LB, Broncos
The second Brandon Marshall to make the list, the Broncos linebacker doesn’t fall much further than the receiver. He has developed into one of the league’s best inside linebackers, and in this past season, was a major force on the league’s best defense. Marshall can play the run exceptionally well, blitz, and cover, which is exactly what you want from a modern-day linebacker, and at his age, is only getting better.
86. Jimmy Graham, TE, Seahawks
While receiving TEs are all the rage in today’s NFL, you need to be prepared to use them in a certain way to get the best out of them. Under Sean Payton, the Saints have always utilized a big-slot type of weapon, whether it was Graham or Marques Colston, to very good effect. Seattle traded for that player in part because they saw what he could do, but haven’t been able to replicate the same production in a more conventional TE role. Graham’s blocking isn’t just short of his receiving ability, it’s nearly prohibitive in terms of his role on offense. He needs to be absolved of those responsibilities (as if he were a wideout) and leaned on as a specific type of receiving weapon in the passing game. At this point, his ranking has as much to do with whether the team can work out how to get the best out of him as it does his one-dimensional nature as a player.
87. Amari Cooper, WR, Raiders
I was a huge fan of Amari Cooper coming out of college, because he did the little things so well and was already incredibly polished as a receiver. We saw that transfer to the NFL in 2015, as he caught 72 passes for 1,070 yards and six touchdowns. Only a staggering case of the drops (leading the league with 18) holds him back, but if he can fix that going forwards, he could immediately become one of the league’s best receivers and vault higher up this list. The potential he has in teaming up with Derek Carr should massively excite Raiders fans, because it excites me as an analyst, and I have no horse in the race.
88. Darrelle Revis, CB, Jets
I think it’s clear from the tape now that we have seen the best of Darrelle Revis, and the player that takes the field in 2016 will be a declining force. But Revis was coming down from such a pedestal that even that player is still one of the best 101 players in the game, and especially when you consider the tough coverage assignments he still draws as a No. 1 corner that is asked to track receivers. He gets beaten a little more now than he used to given those tough tasks, but the fact that he can limit receivers as much as he still can is still far more than most corners can manage.
89. Calais Campbell, DE, Cardinals
Calais Campbell may not be the most explosive player in the NFL, but in terms of consistent production, there aren’t many better. While his ceiling may be some way short of J.J. Watt or Aaron Donald, he is still a major impact player on defense and capable of screwing up an offense’s plans almost single-handedly. He has four straight seasons of strong grades as both a run-defender and pass-rusher, and seven straight years of excellent pass-rush grades.
90. Jonathan Stewart, RB, Panthers
The only real knock on Jonathan Stewart’s career has been an inability to stay healthy, but when he does, he is something pretty special, helping to transform the Panthers’ offense into a far more balanced attack than it would otherwise be. PFF’s elusive rating metric was devised as an attempt to isolate the running back from the blocking, giving him credit for the work he was doing on his own by accounting for yards after contact and broken tackles, and Stewart has always ranked among the top few players in that statistic over his career. This past year, he was third in the league, breaking 56 tackles during the 2015 regular season.
91. Linval Joseph, DT, Vikings
If I could guarantee the player we saw in 2015 was the player we would get in 2016, Linval Joseph may well make the top 10 of this list. He was staggeringly dominant at times, and his destruction job on the Rams in Week 9 may have been the single-best game any interior defender had all year. He was pretty much unblockable in that meeting, and just laid waste to the Rams’ running attack by tossing blockers into the backfield and then diving in on top of them. Joseph has always graded well for us in the recent past, but this season, his second in Minnesota, was a completely different thing. It was such a deviation from his career baseline that I just can’t put faith in it repeating until I see it happen. If and when it does, his ascent up this list will be stratospheric.
[More from Mike Renner on the impact play of Linval Joseph here.]
92. Derek Carr, QB, Raiders
Derek Carr may be the next great young quarterback in the NFL. The improvement he showed from his rookie year to his second was remarkable, and as encouraging as anything is how accomplished his supporting cast looks all of a sudden. The Raiders have quickly built arguably the league’s best offensive line around him, and he has multiple weapons to play with in the passing game. His partnership with Amari Cooper could become something special in a hurry. Already Carr has eliminated many of the simple errors that still plague some accomplished passers in the league, and if he takes another step forward in 2016, he will be knocking on the door of the top five QBs in football. He ended the 2015 season as the No. 8 rated QB in the league when looking at passing grades only, ahead of Matt Ryan, Philip Rivers, and Aaron Rodgers.
[More from Sam Monson on why Derek Carr could be the next great NFL QB here.]
93. Vontae Davis, CB, Colts
Before the 2015 season, Vontae Davis had seen his career only moving in one direction. He had improved year on year, culminating in a 2014 season that was among the best we have ever seen for a cornerback since we began grading games in 2007. This past season was something of a letdown by comparison, and while he was still good, he jut wasn’t near that same dominant force. He allowed seven touchdowns this season alone, having not allowed any the year before, and looked like a far more fragile defender than he had in the past. The question for this list is which Vontae Davis are we going to get in 2016 and beyond, and I suspect it’s likely to be closer to the 2015 version than the 2014 one.
94. Delanie Walker, TE, Titans
Delanie Walker probably isn’t getting enough credit for how good he was in 2015. Accepting that Rob Gronkowski is the No. 1 TE in the league whenever he’s healthy, the battle is really for the No. 2 overall rank, and Walker earned that title this past season. The Titan topped 1,000 receiving yards and was one of only a few TEs to post strong grades as both a receiver and as a blocker. If this list was just based on his 2015 season, I would have him far higher up (he finished at No. 50 in the 2015 PFF 101), but it was a big leap forward in terms of his previous seasons, and I just can’t have complete faith that he will repeat that level of play going forward. If he does, he will jump up this list in a year’s time.
95. Jordan Reed, TE, Redskins
The TE position has largely been redefined in today’s NFL, where blocking has become almost optional, and acting as a large slot receiver has taken over as the primary role. Jordan Reed is one of the best of the new breed of “move TEs,” and has the kind of spectacular ball skills to make one-handed grabs and turn insignificant-looking receptions into much bigger plays once he has the ball in his hands. His blocking is far from ideal, but he isn’t alone in that regard; however, the fact that some TEs in the league can still manage to do both limits how high I can rank those that don’t. Reed is a special player as a receiver, but I would like to see more from his blocking to get him higher up this list.
96. Ronald Darby, CB, Bills
Rookie cornerbacks aren’t supposed to hit the ground running in the NFL, but Ronald Darby’s grades were consistently excellent from day one. To put it in perspective, his coverage grade over the season was better than Darrelle Revis managed in his rookie campaign of 2007, as were almost all of Darby’s coverage numbers across the board. He didn’t finish the year quite as well as he began, which is why he is in the 90s on this list, but when he was at his best, he was excellent. If he takes any kind of step forward in his second season, he will be in very rare air. Kansas City CB Marcus Peters may have led the league in interceptions, but he also had far more negative plays to offset those than Darby did, and never came close to matching the Bill’s grade on a play-by-play basis.
97. Todd Gurley, RB, Rams
The running back position in today’s NFL is consistently talked about as being devalued, but there is a visible impact any elite runner can still bring to any offense, and we saw that last season when Todd Gurley got on the field. His explosive ability to turn a crease into a big gain gave a completely different dimension to the Rams’ attack, and if they can couple that with a viable passing offense, they may really be in business. So far, all we have really seen from Gurley is his ability with the ball in hand, and in today’s league, you want an elite running back to be a factor in the passing game, as well. 2016 will tell us if he has that in his arsenal, because a rookie season being eased back from a bad knee injury likely doesn’t tell the whole story in that regard. The Rams barely used him in that area in 2015; let’s see if they do this year.
98. Evan Mathis, G, Cardinals
PFF’s affinity for Evan Mathis has been no secret over the years. He is a player that has consistently graded well when he has been on the field, and even this past season when carrying injuries and splitting time in Denver, he was one of the best-graded guards in the league, and the highest-graded run blocker. Pass-blocking has always been the weaker side of his game, though, and 2015 was the first season from him to earn a negative grade, surrendering three sacks and 22 total pressures over 1,010 total snaps (including the playoffs). At his age, it’s possible we have seen his best play, and in a passing league, he needs to pick that part of his game up to appear higher on this list in a year’s time. As a run-blocking guard, though, there is likely still nobody better. Even if he doesn’t bury his man, nobody wins as consistently as he does in that area.
99. Andrew Luck, QB, Colts
If this list was about potential and ceiling, Andrew Luck may well be a top-five player, but so far he has yet to consistently hit those heights, and we are dealing with glimpses of what he could be, rather than the game-by-game proof that he is that guy. Much of it is not his fault, as the Colts have hung him out to dry with a series of poorly-performing offensive lines that finally caught up with them in a big way in 2015, but the fact remains that Luck has never been quite as good as his reputation. His best season came in 2014, and even then he was only sixth among QBs in terms PFF overall grade, and eighth when it comes to passing alone. What gets him on the list at all is the spectacular plays he can make, and the consistent teasing of what he could become. Luck makes plays that nobody else in the league—with the possible exception of Aaron Rodgers—can make, and if he can ever iron out the negative and routine misses, he could be the special quarterback he has been billed as for years.
100. Damon Harrison, NT, Giants
A decade ago, Damon Harrison would be celebrated a lot more than he is now. Back when two-gapping was the fashion and run-stuffers on the D-line were the foundation of half of the league’s best defenses, Harrison would be right at home. In today’s NFL, he is a rather one-dimensional player, which keeps him as low as he is on this list, but he is so good at that one-dimension that he needs to be on it. Harrison won PFF’s inaugural Ted Washington Award, given to the league’s best run-defender; in 2015, he posted a run-stop percentage of 18.1, which wasn’t just the best mark we saw among defensive tackles, but was the best single-season mark we have ever seen at the position. It would be nice if he brought a little more in the passing game, but if he did, he would be far higher on this list. His sheer dominance and power against the run gets him to this spot all by itself.
101. Pat McAfee, P, Colts
To quote Rich Eisen, “Punters are people too,” and while my well-meaning but draconian colleagues may never allow one to make the seasonal PFF Top 101 list, there is no doubt that Pat McAfee deserves his place on this list of the 101 best players in the league. He has been either first or second in our punter grading over the last two seasons, which takes into account ball location, hang time, distance and where on the field the punts are taking place, and when you add in the fact that he may also be the league’s best kick-off specialist, it really is a no brainer. Specialists don’t get the opportunity to affect as many plays as almost all other positions, but they can’t be dismissed as inconsequential, and McAfee is an impact player for the Colts in terms of consistently changing the field-position battle and tilting things in favor of his team when he gets the opportunity. He may not put points on the board, but he makes life easier for those who do.