Every team's best player, and which young player could take his place
Each year in the NFL, there are young players that have their eyes on moving up the pecking order. Whether it is just climbing up the depth chart to secure themselves a roster spot or becoming the true alpha dog on the team, everybody is looking to improve year-on-year and summit the mountain.
Heading into the 2017 season we look at the best player on each NFL team and the young guy who is most likely to take their place.
Best Player: Marshal Yanda – G
Marshal Yanda isn’t just the best player on the Ravens, but the best guard in the game and arguably the best offensive lineman in the league. Last season he allowed just six total pressures all season, and he has allowed only one sack over the past two seasons.
Young Contender: Ronnie Stanley – T
If you ignore the Week 9 performance against the Steelers – a game in which Stanley was clearly not healthy – his performance as a rookie left tackle was incredibly impressive, particularly as a pass blocker. After that Pittsburgh game, Stanley allowed just one sack over the rest of the season and nine total pressures in the remaining eight games.
Best Player: A.J. Green – WR
A.J. Green is one of the league’s most dominant receivers. Injury robbed him of a career year in 2016, but in the time he was on the field he gained 2.86 yards per route run, which trailed only Julio Jones (3.12) among wide outs.
Young Contender: William Jackson III – CB
Cincinnati’s top rookie a year ago suffered an injury and never saw the field in year one, but in his final college season he allowed just 47.4 percent of passes thrown his way to be caught, and tallied five interceptions and 13 pass breakups from the 97 targets sent his way. He has high-end playmaking ability and the size and speed that NFL teams covet at the position, and could still provide a huge impact once recovered to full health.
Best Player: Joe Thomas – T
Joe Thomas has been the benchmark for left tackle excellence since he entered the league in 2007. Last season, his grade slipped a little to an overall PFF grade of 89.1, but that still represented a top-five figure at the position, and gives him 10-straight seasons of excellent grades when it comes to pass blocking.
Young Contender: Myles Garrett – EDGE
The Browns roster is young and rebuilding, so the obvious candidate to one day topple Joe Thomas is this year’s No. 1 draft pick, Myles Garrett. Over the past three seasons of college play, Garrett has notched 164 total pressures and 90 defensive stops. Garrett’s production has been exceptional, and he adds elite-level athleticism and measurables into the bargain.
Best Player: Antonio Brown – WR
There may be no better route runner in the game than Antonio Brown, who has been phenomenally productive despite relatively average size and speed when compared to physical freaks like Atlanta’s Julio Jones. Brown has caught 70.7 percent of the passes thrown his way over the past three seasons, dropping just 16 of 573 targets.
Young Contender: T.J. Watt – EDGE
The play of Artie Burns came on strong towards the end of his rookie year, but sooner or later one of Pittsburgh’s first round edge rushers has to become good. T.J. Watt isn’t just riding the coattails of his brother J.J., but was an incredibly effective player in his own right last season at Wisconsin, notching 57 total pressures and 32 defensive stops, and grading well across every facet of the game in PFF measures.
Best Player: LeSean McCoy – RB
Part of one of the league’s most formidable ground games, LeSean McCoy is one of the most elusive and hard-to-tackle backs in the game. Last season he forced 43 missed tackles over the season and gained 2.4 yards per carry after contact across his 234 carries.
Young Contender: Ronald Darby – CB
Darby experienced something of a sophomore slump, but that rookie season was so impressive it showed his true potential. As a rookie, Darby notched 13 pass breakups as well as a pair of interceptions, allowing only 54.3 percent of passes thrown his way to be caught, surrendering only 11.6 yards per catch. If Darby can bounce back in year three he has a chance to be an excellent cornerback.
Best Player: Ndamukong Suh – DI
He may never live up to the contract he signed, but Ndamukong Suh has been better in Miami than he was in Detroit, and is one of the league’s most disruptive interior forces. Over the past two seasons, he has totaled 118 sacks, hits and hurries and 80 defensive stops. The biggest knock on his game remains discipline, as he has had a ridiculous 39 penalties over the past three seasons.
Young Contender: Jay Ajayi – RB
The first season in which Jay Ajayi was heavily featured saw him run with the kind of reckless abandon that just forces yardage through sheer force of will. Ajayi broke 58 tackles on the ground, 11 more than any other back in the league despite fewer carries than many of them. He gained 3.5 yards per carry after contact, the most of any player with 100+ carries.
Best Player: Tom Brady – QB
Tom Brady returned from suspension last season and set about posting the best quarterback grade we have seen over the past decade of grading. Brady’s mark of 99.3 over the season, including the playoffs, ended up almost six points higher than the next-best quarterback in 2016, and he had a total of just three turnover worthy plays all regular season.
Young Contender: Trey Flowers – DI
In truth, Trey Flowers’ best shot of becoming the Patriots best player is once Brady retires, but the start to his NFL career has been impressive, continuing from some dominant college grading. Last season, he notched 35 total pressures and graded even better against the run. If Flowers continues that kind of career progression he could become one of the game’s better defenders in a hurry.
Best Player: Leonard Williams – DI
Leonard Williams has become a dominant force against the run, but also generates his fair share of pressure – 55 total pressures in 2016 – and is capable of playing all over the defensive line for the Jets. Williams recorded 48 defensive stops last year, which trailed only Damon Harrison (52) among interior defenders, and was five clear of any others in the chasing pack.
Young Contender: Jamal Adams – S
Jamal Adams was PFF’s No.1 ranked safety prospect in the draft this year and has seen his grades increase every year. The player that he drew comparisons to in PFF’s Draft Pass product was Eric Weddle – the best safety in the game – so if he lives up to that kind of billing, he could quickly challenge Williams as the team’s best player. 251 of his 802 snaps last season came in the slot, giving him the versatility to be an NFL matchup weapon on defense.
Best Player: J.J. Watt – DI
We are likely to get a reminder in 2017 of just how good J.J. Watt is, after missing most of 2016 injured and playing what little he did while carrying the injury that would ultimately shut him down. When he has been healthy in the past though, he has been untouchably dominant. In the four years before 2016, Watt averaged an astonishing 95 total pressures and 67 defensive stops. That stat line would have trailed only Khalil Mack (96) for total pressures in 2016, and led all defensive linemen in stops by 13.
Young Contender: Deshaun Watson – QB
In truth, nobody on the Texans roster has much chance to be better than Watt, but if Deshaun Watson can become a high-level NFL quarterback, he could prove to be more important to them. Watson has big-game pedigree and over three years of grading saw his PFF grades improve each season. His adjusted completion percentage in 2016 was 76.1 percent, the third-best mark in the nation.
Best Player: Andrew Luck – QB
The step forward Andrew Luck took in 2016 sealed his place as the best player on this roster, as well as the most important. Luck finished the season with a grade of 92.4, good enough for fourth overall, and when he was kept clean in the pocket his passer rating was 112.0 over the year.
Young Contender: Ryan Kelly – C
The Colts aren’t blessed with a lot of good options for this, but Ryan Kelly’s rookie performance in the middle of the offensive line was very encouraging. Kelly didn’t allow a sack all season and was flagged just three times in one of the league’s most pass-happy offenses. He needs a significant step forward, but his potential is high.
Best Player: Calais Campbell – DI
Calais Campbell is aging like a fine wine, and put together the best season of his career at the age of 30. Last year he trailed only Aaron Donald in PFF grade (90.4) among interior defenders, and notched 34 defensive stops to go along with his 56 total pressures for the Cardinals. Moving across to Jacksonville in free agency, Campbell immediately becomes the best player on the Jaguars.
Young Contender: Jalen Ramsey – CB
Jalen Ramsey allowed two touchdowns in coverage over the first four games of the season, but from that point on allowed just one over the rest of his rookie season, while picking off two passes and breaking up ten over the same span. He flashed some true shutdown potential over the year, being targeted 14 times against the Texans, but surrendering just six catches while picking off one pass and breaking up another four.
Best Player: Jurrell Casey – DI
Jurrell Casey is a consistently disruptive interior force for the Titans. He has graded at 85 or above for five straight seasons and his rookie year of 2011 was only just below that at 84.1 overall. Primarily a pass rushing threat, Casey has also graded well against the run in the past, and even had five batted passes in 2016.
Young Contender: Jack Conklin – T
Jack Conklin played in one of the league’s most offensive line-friendly schemes in the league, and he received more help than many tackles, but that shouldn’t take away from just how good he was within that scheme at a position that rarely sees high-level play from first-year players. Conklin surrendered 31 total pressures over the season and only gave up a sack or hit in three games. If he improves in year two he could quickly become the Titans’ best player.
Best Player: Von Miller – EDGE
There may be no more devastating pass rusher in the game than Von Miller. His run to the Super Bowl a year ago was one of the most dominant pass-rushing displays in NFL history, and he was the single biggest factor in the two most important games of the year, including the Super Bowl victory over Carolina. Over the past three seasons he has averaged 86 total pressures.
Young Contender: Shaquil Barrett – LB
With the retirement of DeMarcus Ware, Shaq Barrett should get an opportunity to start and play more snaps in 2017. His play off the bench over the past two seasons has been excellent against the run and pass, and he has averaged 24 total pressures and 22 defensive stops in limited snaps. His PFF grade improved from 78.0 to 81.1 last season, and another improvement coupled with a starting spot could see his reputation soar – though matching Von Miller any time soon is extremely unlikely.
Best Player: Justin Houston – EDGE
Justin Houston is one of the league’s most dominant edge rushers when healthy, but that is becoming an increasingly significant caveat. In 2016, he rushed the passer just 152 times, but was able to generate 17 total pressures on those rushes. The year before he had 59 on 309 pass rushing snaps. If we see a healthy Justin Houston in 2017, the AFC West will remain a nightmare division for quarterbacks and tackles.
Young Contender: Chris Jones – DI
With Houston struggling more with injuries, a second-year improvement from Chris Jones could see him challenge quickly. As a rookie, Jones earned a PFF grade of 83.5, good enough to rank 13th among all interior defenders in the league on 614 snaps. Jones posted 42 total pressures and flashed the ability to wreck offensive lines at times during his first year.
Best Player: Joey Bosa – EDGE
It’s difficult to overstate how good Joey Bosa was right off the bat, it was like he was only picking up in the NFL where he left off in college. No player in the past ten years has recorded more total pressures in their first twelve games in the league than Bosa’s 59, and he played both left and right side of the line, moving between defensive end and outside linebacker for the Chargers. Bosa could become one of the game’s best players quickly.
Young Contender: Hunter Henry – TE
Unless he has a significant step back in performance, it’s hard to imagine anybody on the Chargers roster challenging him for that top spot, but Hunter Henry has the ability to be special in his own right. He gained 1.99 yards per route run as a rookie, good enough for sixth in the NFL, and caught 76.6 percent of the passes thrown his way.
Best Player: Khalil Mack – EDGE
Khalil Mack led the NFL in 2016 with 96 total pressures, and was second among all edge rushers with 44 defensive stops for the Raiders. Mack has developed the kind of game-changing plays that elite edge rushers have, and has been a consistent force against both the run and pass.
Young Contender: Amari Cooper – WR
Amari Cooper’s potential has always been off the charts, and while his production has been impressive from day one, his PFF grade – which captures the hidden context to those numbers – has been slower to impress (80.9 in 2016, 23rd in the NFL). If Cooper has a leap in 2017 similar to the one he had last season, he could quickly become one of the game’s most unstoppable receivers.
Best Player: Josh Sitton – G
There might not be a better pass blocker in the NFL than Josh Sitton, and certainly not among guards. Three times in his NFL career he hasn’t allowed a sack over a full season, two of those instances coming in the past three seasons. In 2016, he allowed just six hurries across 13 games, and he has consistently been an above-average run blocker to go along with that.
Young Contender: Jordan Howard – RB
Jordan Howard was special rushing the football as a rookie, and would have received much more attention had it not been for Ezekiel Elliott leading the league in rushing over in Dallas. Howard was second despite not really playing over the first month of the season and he averaged 3.0 yards per carry after contact. He dropped a ridiculous 21.6 percent of the catchable passes sent his way in year one, a number very unlikely to continue, so could look even better going forward.
Best Player: T.J. Lang – G
Another new acquisition that slots straight in as the team’s best player, T.J. Lang has been an excellent guard for the Packers over recent seasons, with a PFF grade of 87.0 last season ranking eighth among guards. Lang didn’t allow a sack or hit across all of 2016, and surrendered a total of 10 hurries.
Young Contender: Taylor Decker – T
We may get an even greater appreciation for Taylor Decker given what the Lions are likely to be forced into doing at left tackle without him. In his first season, Decker earned solid grades as a pass protector and run blocker. He would need development to be seen as an elite player, but the signs were good as a rookie.
Best Player: Aaron Rodgers – QB
At his best, Aaron Rodgers may be the best quarterback and best player in the game. He has an unrivaled ability to extend plays and be productive through the air on longer passing plays. Rodgers threw 22 touchdown passes on passing plays where the ball was in his hands 2.6 seconds or longer, three more than any other quarterback.
Young Contender: Ty Montgomery – RB
Ty Montgomery likely won’t ever threaten Rodgers as the Packers best player, and neither will anybody else, but his development at running back could be very interesting to watch. Montgomery always looked like a running back more than a receiver, and he led all runners last season with a ridiculous 5.1 yards per carry after first contact, breaking 18 tackles from his 72 backfield carries.
Best Player: Harrison Smith – S
A slight down season in 2016 doesn’t change the fact that Harrison Smith is one of the league’s best and most complete safeties. Smith has more than 20 defensive stops in each of the past three seasons, and has multiple sacks on the blitz in each too. Last year, he recorded nine total pressures on those blitz snaps and though he didn’t record an interception, he still made multiple positive plays in coverage.
Young Contender: Dalvin Cook – RB
Dalvin Cook led the FBS last season in broken tackles, with 91 – 15 more than any other running back. He gained 4.2 yards per carry after first contact, notching 1,208 yards after contact (also FBS best). Cook has the ability to make Vikings fans forget about Adrian Peterson.
Best Player: Travis Frederick – C
Travis Frederick didn’t allow a sack in all of 2016 or 2015, having surrendered just one in 2014, and he has as tough a job as any center in the game given what is asked of him within the Cowboys zone blocking scheme. Despite that he routinely grades among the best run blocking centers, and has been consistently elite even against high-level opposition.
Young Contender: Ezekiel Elliott – RB
It’s difficult to separate out and apportion the credit for the Dallas offense and run game, but Elliott is certainly not just the beneficiary of an unstoppable blocking unit that would make anybody look like a star. The line certainly helps, but Elliott gained 2.9 yards per carry after contact, gaining 938 yards after he was hit and breaking 36 tackles to do it.
Best Player: Odell Beckham Jr. – WR
Odell Beckham Jr has been making a lot of his production happen all by himself. Leaving aside his ability to make spectacular catches look routine – he will forever have one of the greatest receptions the game has ever seen to his credit – he also broke 29 tackles with the ball in his hands, the most among wide receivers in 2016, gaining 545 extra yards after the catch.
Young Contender: Landon Collins – S
The move from free to strong safety was transformative for Landon Collins. He led all safeties in year two with 46 defensive stops, which would have ranked in the top 20 among linebackers as well, but he also racked up five interceptions, five pass breakups and ten total pressures resulting in four sacks on the blitz. Collins is already a defensive player of the year candidate, and there is little between him and Beckham as the Giants’ best player.
Best Player: Fletcher Cox – DI
Fletcher Cox has now been a dominant interior lineman in multiple different schemes for the Eagles, and last year was the only player to give Zack Martin problems when he faced the Cowboys. Cox racked up eight pressures against the Cowboys across two games and 57 total over the season.
Young Contender: Carson Wentz – QB
The final three quarters of Carson Wentz’ rookie season didn’t live up to the hype of the first five games, but that debut showed the potential he does have to become one of the game’s better quarterbacks. Over that five-week span, Wentz had a PFF grade of 90.2, which was the best grade in the league at that position. His adjusted completion percentage was 73.7, and he showed high-level poise. If we can find that Wentz again, the Eagles have their franchise QB.
Best Player: Trent Williams – T
2016’s Trent Williams was the best tackle in the game. In twelve games he allowed just 16 total pressures and even kicked inside to moonlight at guard early in the season when injuries caused a mid-game re-shuffle along the line. Williams has huge power in the run game but also the athleticism to live with speed on the outside as a pass blocker.
Young Contender: Jonathan Allen – DI
As a prospect, Jonathan Allen had many red flags, but his college production at Alabama was off the charts and consequently he was PFF’s No.1 ranked interior prospect in the draft. Another player whose college grades improved each season over the past three years, Allen generated 67 total pressures in his final year, and ranked in the top five in the nation in pass rush productivity, run stop percentage and quick-pressure production.
Best Player: Julio Jones – WR
Julio Jones is the closest thing the current NFL has to Randy Moss or Calvin Johnson – a physically freakish receiver that defenses just can’t match up with athletically. Jones earned a PFF grade of 96.4 last season, and made some of the most spectacular catches of the season. Jones gained 3.12 yards per route run, the most in the league.
Young Contender: Keanu Neal – S
Not a player PFF was in love with as a draft prospect, Keanu Neal nevertheless made a major impact in year one thanks in part to cutting dramatically down on his missed tackle count. He missed just six as a rookie in the NFL after having missed 16 in his final college season. Neal flashed game-changing ability in year one, and if he can improve on his consistency going forward he could be the most likely challenger for the Falcons.
Best Player: Luke Kuechly – LB
Luke Kuechly is the game’s best linebacker, and has a freakish ability to read plays and break on the ball in coverage that most linebackers can’t come close to. Concussion issues have cost him significant time over the past two seasons but even with nine games missed over the past two seasons he has been able to rack up 108 defensive stops.
Young Contender: Christian McCaffrey – RB
Christian McCaffrey could be the perfect offensive weapon for the NFL landscape of 2017. McCaffrey was a workhorse running back for Stanford in college, but also a devastating return man and a player that looked like he could play wide receiver at a high level as well. McCaffrey broke 150 tackles on plays from scrimmage over the past two seasons as a starter.
Best Player: Drew Brees – QB
Drew Brees casually surpassed 5,000 yards again last season, doing so for the fifth time while the rest of NFL history only has four to their names. Brees earned a PFF grade of 86.7, good enough to rank seventh overall and was particularly effective throwing deep, where his 1,250 passing yards on deep (20+ air yards) passes was second in the league.
Young Contender: Michael Thomas – WR
Michael Thomas was an impact player from day one, because the Saints were prepared to help him get there. Early in the season, Thomas was running little more than slant and go patterns, but it enabled the team to get him 119 targets over the year, 27 more than any other rookie receiver. He gained 478 of his yards after the catch, breaking 20 tackles on his 92 receptions.
Best Player: Mike Evans – WR
Mike Evans had the best highlight reel of any receiver in the game last season. It wasn’t so much the quality of it, as the duration, as he just made a succession of spectacular catches all throughout the season. He was the only receiver other than Julio Jones to grade within the ‘elite’ band at PFF, ending the year with a mark of 93.3 overall.
Young Contender: Ali Marpet – C
Stepping into the NFL from Hobart college, the adjustment for Ali Marpett was always going to be significant, but his career arc in terms of development is going skyward. In 2016, he earned a PFF grade of 84.5 overall, a jump of almost ten points from his rookie season, and he allowed two sacks over the season.
Best Player: Patrick Peterson – CB
Patrick Peterson has the toughest job of any cornerback in the game, expected to track number one receivers all season and follow them inside to the slot, an unusual thing even among those that track receivers. Peterson went 14.0 snaps in coverage between giving up receptions on average in 2016, the third-best mark in the league, and he was the single least-targeted corner in the game, going an average of 8.5 snaps in coverage for every target.
Young Contender: David Johnson – RB
David Johnson is already one of the game’s best running backs and most unstoppable offensive forces. He has enough receiving skills to be split out as a wide receiver on 197 of his 964 snaps (20.4 percent), and receives the kind of targets that most backs don’t in terms of receiver routes. Johnson is already right with Peterson among the best players on the Cardinals, so would only need a good season to overhaul him.
Best Player: Aaron Donald – DI
Logically, the best player in the NFL heading into the 2017 season, is also the best player on the Rams roster. Aaron Donald has been a human wrecking ball since entering the NFL and is one of the toughest players to block in the game. His speed and quickness off the ball is too much for offensive linemen to handle, and he has amassed 161 total pressures and 90 defensive stops over the past two seasons.
Young Contender: Jared Goff – QB
Make no mistake – Jared Goff’s rookie season was horrendous – but there was very little help surrounding him and his college production and grade was outstanding. In his final college season, he completed 68.5 percent of his passes under pressure and threw 31 touchdown passes when under duress. Goff would need a huge leap in year two, but the talent is there for him to succeed at the NFL level. Once more though, the chances of any player surpassing Donald as long as he is with the Rams are minimal.
Best Player: Joe Staley – T
Joe Staley may be on the downslope of his NFL career at this point, but he remains a fine left tackle, and ranked 25th among all tackles in the league with a PFF grade of 81.1 in 2016. Staley allowed four sacks over the season, and run blocked well, but his spot here could be under threat if he doesn’t reverse his dip in production.
Young Contender: DeForest Buckner – EDGE
DeForest Buckner was on the field a lot as a rookie, and often not in situations that played to his strengths. Despite that, he notched 48 total pressures and 35 defensive stops, and earned at least above average grades in all areas of the game. Buckner has the talent to be a real disruptive force for the 49ers with an improved scheme and personnel group around him.
Best Player: Bobby Wagner – LB
Bobby Wagner is one of the game’s best linebackers, but on the Seahawks, he is under intense pressure from multiple spots among players that could easily be seen as the best on the team. Wagner posted 60 defensive stops last season, the third most among linebackers, and he wasn’t beaten for a reception longer than 27 yards all season.
Young Contender: Frank Clark – EDGE
The Seahawks have had some success in recent drafts, but the most promising young player they have on the field is Frank Clark. Clark notched 54 total pressures last season and 26 defensive stops, earning his second-successive solid season. If he continues to develop in 2017, he could become another fearsome member of the Seahawks defense.