Top 101 NFL players from the 2015 season
Now that free agency has passed and the dust from the draft has settled, it’s time to look back at the season that was and break down the best performers on an individual level over the year. As happens each season, the PFF analysis team gets together to argue for who we believe the best players were, and the end result of those marathon meetings is the top 101 list, now heading into its sixth season in existence.
At its heart, PFF is a player-evaluation enterprise, and so this is our chance to acknowledge the best performances we saw in 2015 and the NFL players that deserve recognition.
Before looking at the list, there are some important things to understand regarding the criteria for selection:
- This list is based solely on 2015 play. Nothing that happened in previous years or may happen in the future is accounted for. This isn’t about class or talent, it’s about performance throughout the 2015 NFL season.
- This list is created with an “all positions are created equal” mantra. So, you won’t see 32 quarterbacks heading the list—even though that is the game’s most valuable position. Instead, we take a look at how guys played relative to what is expected from their position.
Disagree with the players we’ve included here? Let us know in the comments or on Twitter at @PFF.
1. Aaron Donald, DT, St. Louis Rams (2014 season ranking: 18)
Dethroning J.J. Watt from atop of the PFF Top 101 takes some serious production. Coming into this season, Watt was the No. 1 name on the list for three straight years following his breakout sophomore campaign, and it looked like he would remain there as long as he stayed on the field. For Aaron Donald to force himself into the same kind of echelon already in his career is truly staggering.
Donald was the highest-graded interior defender in the league, and in his second season—just like Watt—he pushed that grade into the stratosphere. The Rams’ star may not have posted the kind of numbers Watt did, but Donald played exclusively inside as a defensive tackle, whereas Watt has become a true edge rusher, a position that typically generates far better stats than their interior teammates. Donald still ended the season with 79 total pressures and 51 defensive stops, and actually gained more pressure on a per-rush basis than the Texan.
Donald may have the quickest first step in the game among linemen, and was a constant presence in the backfield of offenses, blowing up plays against the run and pass with frightening regularity. He may not have the ideal size that teams look for, but there was no better NFL player in 2015.
Best performance: Week 1 versus Seattle: +10.7
Key stat: Aaron Donald was the highest-graded player in the NFL last season (99.9 on PFF’s new 1–100 scale).
2. Antonio Brown, WR, Pittsburgh Steelers (7)
The best wide receiver in the game right now, Antonio Brown is simply unstoppable against any conventional coverage. Broncos CB Chris Harris Jr. hadn’t allowed a touchdown for 36 straight games before facing Brown in Week 15—the Steelers wideout grabbed two TDs in Harris’ coverage that game. Brown isn’t a physical specimen in the way some of the NFL’s top receivers are, but excels at every fundamental aspect of the position. He earned the highest grade for a wideout PFF has ever given, and was only slowed down when the Steelers lost Ben Roethlisberger to injury and were forced to play Landry Jones and Michael Vick. Had Brown been paired with Roethlisberger all season, his stats project out as 158 catches for 2,114 yards and 15 touchdowns; the first two of those three numbers would be all-time single-season records.
Best performance: Week 9 versus Oakland: +8.5
Key stat: Brown’s cumulative overall season grade of +36.1 was the highest for any NFL WR in the PFF era (since 2007).
3. Luke Kuechly, LB, Carolina Panthers (9)
Luke Kuechly won PFF’s inaugural Dick “Night Train” Lane Award for the best coverage defender in football this past season. That’s not to say that you would choose him over any cornerback in the league to split out wide and cover Antonio Brown, but rather an indication of just how superior he was compared to the peers at his position group when it came to coverage. At middle linebacker for the Panthers, Kuechly makes plays no other LB in the NFL makes, including a pass breakup in the divisional round of the playoffs against Seattle—breaking towards the sideline and getting fingertips to a pass intended for Doug Baldwin to prevent a reception on a coverage bust he had no part in. In fact, Kuechly only enhanced his season in the playoffs, earning three straight positive grades. But for missing time early in the year with a concussion, he could very easily have found himself atop this list.
Best performance: Week 8 versus Indianapolis: +5.0
Key stat: Kuechly allowed a passer rating of just 48.7 into his coverage (playoffs included), 50 points lower than the LB position average.
4. Rob Gronkowski, TE, New England Patriots (11)
With the draft only recently completed, it’s worth remembering that Rob Gronkowski was a second-round selection in 2010, chosen 42nd overall by the Patriots. Injuries caused him to slip (and have dogged his career), but when he has been on the field, he’s been one of the most dominant forces at any position in the entire league. This season was just another reminder of how much better than the rest of the league he is at the TE position. His numbers were impressive, if not staggering, but when you add in the fact that he also led the league in blocking grade among TEs, you start to see what separates Gronk in an era of move-TEs for whom blocking is a theoretical exercise. A throwback to the days where TEs were genuine do-it-all players, Rob Gronkowski does exactly that.
Best performance: Week 3 at Indianapolis: +4.3
Key stat: Gronk led all NFL TEs in yards, yards per reception, touchdowns, yards after the catch, receiving grade, and blocking grade.
5. J.J. Watt, DE, Houston Texans (1)
It says something about J.J. Watt that he can have a relative “down” year, play through a broken hand for part of the season, and still finish fifth on PFF’s Top 101 list. At his best, there is no better player in the NFL, at any position. Aaron Donald is making the case that he does at least have an equal, but certainly nobody outdistancing him in performance; however, this season was not the best Watt we have seen. His hand injury is fine mitigation, but he was less-effective during that span, and even before that his grading had been slightly down from his otherworldly level of years past. In a season in which he broke his hand, Watt still notched a better grade than anybody we have seen since 2007 (other than Aaron Donald), and he still led the league in total pressures, sacks, and batted passes. He has become a true edge rusher, lining up outside the tackle on 63.9 percent of his snaps, and proving that 290-pound men can be just as dangerous on the edge as they are inside.
Best performance: Week 8 at Tennessee: +13.9
Key stat: Watt led the NFL with 90 total pressures over the regular season.
6. Khalil Mack, OLB, Oakland Raiders (39)
In his rookie season, Khalil Mack was a dominant run defender whose pass-rushing grade was good, but not great. In his second NFL season, he became the total package. With a little more help on the Oakland defensive line, Mack was able to match Olivier Vernon’s grade for the best among edge defenders, posting 16 sacks and 82 total pressures on over 1,000 snaps. His improved pass-rush performance also came without a dip in run defense, meaning Mack has quickly become one of the most complete and destructive players in football after only his second season. He also posted 54 defensive stops, which led the league among edge defenders; only Olivier Vernon could come within 18 over the entirety of the season.
Best performance: Week 14 at Denver: +15.4
Key stat: Mack recorded 54 defensive stops over the regular season, four more than any other edge defender.
7. Von Miller, OLB, Denver Broncos (10)
The postseason enjoyed by Von Miller catapults him up this list, ending in a Super Bowl in which he was the single biggest factor, coming hard on the heels of an AFC Championship game in which the same case could be made. Miller demonstrated that, at the peak of his play, there is no more fearsome edge rusher, as well as the effect a dominant rusher can have on an offense. Miller has an ideal blend of quickness, burst, and bend to completely perplex most blockers tasked with stopping him, and while many players are examples of what you can achieve if you don’t fit the NFL’s ideal prototype measurables profile, Miller is the embodiment of what can happen if you fit it to perfection. Over the regular season, he was a key player on the best defense in the league, but there was no better postseason than the one Von Miller displayed, ending with four-straight dominant displays (including a must-win Week 17 encounter) in which he totaled seven sacks and 30 pressures.
Best performance: AFC Championship Game versus New England: +8.5
Key stat: Miller notched 105 total QB pressures last season (postseason included), the most among all NFL 3-4 OLB by 23 pressures.
8. Cam Newton, QB, Carolina Panthers (unranked)
Had this list been for the regular season only, we would have seen Cam Newton rank lower, and likely not as the first quarterback. His postseason performance, however, was excellent even if it will only be remembered for an ugly defeat, the failure to fall on a football, and a petulant press conference display. Newton became a true MVP over the final weeks of the season, leading the Panthers to the Super Bowl and actually playing reasonably well in that game in the face of overwhelming pressure and a questionable game plan. Newton threw some of the most impressive passes of the season, and unlike any other passer, is an integral part of the team’s rushing attack, not simply as a threat to keep the ball on the occasional option play, but as a viable threat to carry the ball at any time on genuine scripted running plays.
Best performance: Week 13 at New Orleans: +6.7
Key stat: Rushing scores included, Newton posted 45 touchdowns over the regular season and added another five in the postseason.
9. Julio Jones, WR, Atlanta Falcons (53)
In any other season, we would likely be giving Julio Jones far more plaudits, but in this particular case, he was beaten into second place even among receivers by Antonio Brown. There are few, if any, more physically-dominant receivers in the NFL right now, and his blend of size and speed makes him almost impossible to cover at times. Jones also managed to post 1,871 yards and 136 receptions despite no real alternate threat in Atlanta, something the team hopes to rectify with their offseason moves. Jones gained more yards per route run this season than any other receiver, and also notched 20 broken tackles after the catch, averaging nearly 5 yards per reception of additional work with the ball in his hands. He was only held below seven catches four times over the season, and never held to fewer than four.
Best performance: Week 1 versus Philadelphia: +5.7
Key stat: Jones gained 3.04 yards per route run, the highest mark among NFL WRs in 2015.
10. Tyrann Mathieu, CB, Arizona Cardinals (unranked)
Tyrann Mathieu was robbed of a chance of appearing higher on this list by a torn ACL late in the season, causing him to miss the final two games and the playoffs. At the point he went down, he was enjoying a Defensive-Player-of-the-Year kind of season, and even with the two missed games, he finished on our shortlist for that award. Whether you view him as a safety (where he is listed by Arizona) or a cornerback (where he plays 67.5 percent of his snaps), you have to appreciate the sheer playmaking ability of a DB who has quickly become one of the league’s great matchup weapons on defense. Capable of playing in a variety of different roles and positions, Mathieu just has a nose for making plays, and showed that this season.
Best performance: Week 7 versus Baltimore: +5.9
Key stat: Listed by Arizona as a safety, Mathieu was PFF’s highest-graded cornerback in 2015, where he played 67.5 percent of his defensive snaps.
11. Josh Norman, CB, Carolina Panthers (unranked)
The raw statistics were there for Josh Norman in 2014, but his grade never quite matched the numbers. In 2015, the two met in spectacular fashion, as for most of the season, opposing quarterbacks were better off statistically just throwing the ball into the turf every play than challenging Norman and throwing it in his direction. He finished the season having allowed just 51 percent of passes thrown his way to be caught, for a passer rating of only 54.0, picking four passes off in the process and scoring twice himself on those returns. There were a couple of hiccups to his season, most notably against Odell Beckham Jr. and the Giants before that encounter descended into farce; but at his best, Norman was truly a shutdown corner in an era where that term has practically lost all relevance.
Best performance: Week 4 at Tampa Bay: +4.4
Key stat: Norman allowed the fewest yards per coverage snap among corners, at 0.63.
12. Joe Thomas, LT, Cleveland Browns (20)
Since entering the league, Joe Thomas has been the standard by which pass protection on the quarterback’s blindside has been measured. This season, he was once again the best pass-blocking tackle in the game, surrendering two sacks, but only 24 total pressures in an offense that asked more of its line than many other systems. Thomas ended the year as PFF’s top-graded tackle with a 94.3 mark, just clear of Tyron Smith in second place (93.3); he also earned PFF’s Bruce Matthews Award, which goes to the league’s best lineman over a season.
Best performance: Week 5 at Baltimore: +5.9
Key stat: Thomas remains the standard of pass protection at tackle, posting a pass-blocking efficiency of 97.4—the best mark for the position.
13. Tyron Smith, LT, Dallas Cowboys (54)
There is virtually nothing to separate Joe Thomas from Tyron Smith over the 2015 season, so it’s fitting that they appear back to back in this list, with each among the best 15 individual seasons we saw. Smith was the best run-blocking tackle in the game, but couldn’t match Thomas in pass protection. He surrendered a total of 22 pressures over the season, but was able to distance himself from any other tackle when it came to run-blocking, and was part of an offensive line that was able to get Darren McFadden to 1,000+ rushing yards, actually generating Pro-Bowl levels of production from the RB in the games in which he saw a significant workload.
Best performance: Week 8 versus Seattle: +6.6
Key stat: Smith posted the highest run-blocking grade among OTs (96.8), more than three points better than his closest peer.
14. Tom Brady, QB, New England Patriots (27)
Tom Brady lost nearly every receiving weapon of consequence at some point over the season, and was working behind one of the worst offensive lines in the game—yet he displayed such a complete mastery of the system that he was barely affected. Brady’s ability to understand where the ball needs to go and manufacture himself easy completions is peerless in today’s NFL, and in terms of “value” to an offense, there may be none moreso—a fact the Patriots may discover over the first four games of 2016 if his suspension survives. Like Carson Palmer, only a poor final game to the season drags him down the list from the position he would have occupied at the end of the regular season, though his bad day at the playoff office wasn’t quite as bad as Palmer’s.
Best performance: Week 8 versus Miami: +7.6
Key stat: Brady suffered from 44 drops by his receivers, tied with Derek Carr for most in the league last season.
15. Carson Palmer, QB, Arizona Cardinals (unranked)
Whether it was his injured thumb or just a postseason meltdown, Carson Palmer’s playoff performance drags him out of the top 10 and away from the very highest spots of the Top 101. At the end of the regular season, Palmer had earned PFF’s vote for both MVP and Offensive Player of the Year. In a passing system that saw him have the highest average depth of target (11.3) in the league, Palmer should have been one of the most inaccurate quarterbacks in the league, but actually completed 63.7 percent of his passes and threw just 11 interceptions over the regular season. He was our highest-graded QB over that span, but in two playoff games, he went from bad to worse, ending with the lowest passing grade we have ever given a quarterback in a postseason game to send the Cardinals home.
Best performance: Week 15 at Philadelphia: +6.7
Key stat: Palmer led the NFL in average depth of target (11.3 yards downfield), and yet still completed 63.7 percent of his passes.
16. Marshal Yanda, G, Baltimore Ravens (5)
The best guard in football in 2015, Marshal Yanda was one of the few bright spots on a Baltimore offensive line that is not what it once was. Yanda trailed only Evan Mathis in run-blocking grade over the year, but was the best pass-blocking guard in the league, surrendering just one sack over 1,155 snaps and comfortably topping the overall grading list. Interior linemen don’t get the ink that more glamorous positions are awarded, but Yanda has been one of the league’s best players for years now, and this was just another season of dominant displays from the former Iowa product.
Best performance: Week 12 at Cleveland: +5.3
Key stat: Yanda allowed just 17 total pressures last season, and was PFF’s highest-graded guard (92.5).
17. Geno Atkins, DT, Cincinnati Bengals (unranked)
2014 was something of a write-off as the first year back from a serious knee injury, but 2015 showed us the best of Geno Atkins once again, having last seen that guy back in 2012. Atkins trailed only Aaron Donald in PFF grading among defensive tackles, and ended the year with 14 sacks and 82 total pressures. Like Donald, Atkins is an undersized DT, but one who plays with exceptional quickness and leverage to destroy plays deep in the backfield. There are few better interior linemen than Atkins when healthy, and we saw this season that his peak has not been stolen by injury.
Best performance: Week 13 at Cleveland: +9.2
Key stat: Atkins recorded the second-highest pass-rushing productivity among DTs in 2015.
18. DeAndre Hopkins, WR, Houston Texans (unranked)
At times during the season, it was like Houston didn’t have any other receivers, and every pass that went airborne was sent in the direction of Hopkins, who came down with an inordinate amount of them. “Nuk” ended the year with 111 receptions for 1,521 yards and 11 scores, despite a dreadful series of quarterbacks throwing him the football, fully emerging as one of the league’s best receivers and justifying his lofty spot on the Top 101 list.
Best performance: Week 6 at Jacksonville: +5.2
Key stat: Hopkins averaged 11.7 targets per game over the season, catching 59.4 percent of them for over 1,500 yards.
19. Patrick Peterson, CB, Arizona Cardinals (unranked)
Finally at full health, Patrick Peterson had arguably his best season as a pro for the Cardinals, and shut down a who’s-who of receivers over the course of the year. Peterson wasn’t beaten for more than 56 yards in any one game, and was one of the few players to enjoy success against Pittsburgh WR Antonio Brown, limiting him to just two receptions for 26 yards on six targets when the two met, albeit in one of the games Brown was without Ben Roethlisberger as his quarterback.
Best performance: Week 13 at St. Louis: +2.6
Key stat: Peterson averaged 18.9 coverage snaps per reception allowed, the best mark among CBs.
20. Anthony Barr, LB, Minnesota Vikings (unranked)
An edge rusher in college, Anthony Barr has developed into one of the league’s more impressive young off-the-ball linebackers. He graded well as a pass-rusher in 2015, but it wasn’t as a situational edge rusher for Minnesota, rather just on the blitz from conventional linebacker alignment. He also graded well against the run and, most impressively for a pass-rushing convert, in coverage. Barr closes on plays in front of him very quickly, can hit landmarks, and gets in the way of passes, as he demonstrated by picking off Peyton Manning when facing Denver in Week 4.
Best performance: Week 4 at Denver: +4.5
Key stat: Barr finished the season with an overall PFF grade of 93.4, trailing only Luke Kuechly among all linebackers.
21. Olivier Vernon, DE, Miami Dolphins (unranked)
There may have been no better player in football over the final eight games of the season than Olivier Vernon, and had he played sixteen games at that level, we would likely be looking at the No. 1 player on this list, instead of No. 21. The fact that he ranks this high shows just how obscene those eight games were, and in them he managed to total 57 defensive pressures and 33 stops, figures that better many starters over the entire year. Vernon was practically unstoppable over the second half of the season, but the first half was just reasonable. Still, few players enjoyed the peak performance the newly-signed Giant put forth in 2015 for the Dolphins.
Best performance: Week 15 at San Diego: +12.8
Key stat: Vernon produced 57 total pressures and 33 defensive stops over the final eight games of the season.
22. Harrison Smith, S, Minnesota Vikings (49)
Harrison Smith has become arguably the NFL’s best safety, capable of doing everything you need a player at that position to do—and do all of it well. He graded highly in every facet of play PFF measures, including discipline and penalties, and is the fulcrum around which the Minnesota secondary swings. He was the only safety to break into the 90s and the “blue-chip elite” band of PFF’s new grading system, with a mark of 92.8 for the season.
Best performance: Week 3 versus San Diego: +5.1
Key stat: Smith was the only safety to finish the year as a top-10 player in coverage grade, pass-rush grade, and run-defense grade.
23. Richard Sherman, CB, Seattle Seahawks (17)
Perhaps overshadowed by Josh Norman this season—both on the field and in trash-talking terms—Richard Sherman was nevertheless excellent once again. He finished the season allowing just 48.4 percent of passes thrown his way to be caught, and had the second-best figure in the league in number of snaps in coverage between giving up a catch, trailing only Arizona’s Patrick Peterson in that regard. Not quite his very best, but Sherman was still fantastic in 2015.
Best performance: Week 8 at Dallas: +5.0
Key stat: Sherman surrendered a reception every 18.4 coverage snaps, the second-best mark among CBs.
24. Ben Roethlisberger, QB, Pittsburgh Steelers (36)
But for missing time due to injury, we could have seen a season from Ben Roethlisberger that would have put him at the very sharp end of this list, because when he was on the field, he was excellent. His accuracy and efficiency throwing downfield was remarkable in 2015, completing 27 passes for 1,170 yards just on deep (20+ air yards) passes over the regular season. In his two postseason games, he added another three such completions for 105 yards, orchestrating one of the league’s most dangerous passing attacks.
Best performance: Week 13 versus Indianapolis: +8.5
Key stat: Roethlisberger was accurate on 50.0 percent of his deep throws, second-best in the NFL.
25. Malcolm Jenkins, S, Philadelphia Eagles (unranked)
Once trapped in an unfriendly system in New Orleans (and earning negative cumulative PFF grades), Malcolm Jenkins has reinvented himself in Philadelphia and been one of the league’s best over the past couple of seasons. This year, he was second only to Minnesota’s Harrison Smith in overall PFF safety grades, with a mark of 89.8, grading well in coverage and against the run. Often covering the slot, Jenkins was thrown at 83 times, the most among safeties by almost 10 targets, but was beaten for an average of just 8.9 yards per reception and allowed fewer than 500 receiving yards.
Best performance: Week 10 versus Miami: +3.7
Key stat: Jenkins had the second highest PFF rating of any safety at 89.8.
26. Terron Armstead, LT, New Orleans Saints (unranked)
One of the true breakout seasons of 2015, Terron Armstead ended the year as our third-highest-graded tackle in the league, trailing only Joe Thomas and Tyron Smith. Armstead earned himself a big-money extension with that season, and also a spot high in the Top 101. He allowed just 20 total pressures over the year, and run-blocked extremely well, giving the Saints a major boost at the left tackle position. He has improved each season of his career, and did not have a single bad game in 2015.
Best performance: Week 7 at Indianapolis: +5.1
Key stat: Armstead allowed 20 total pressures over 952 snaps of play, on his way to the third-highest grade among all tackles.
27. Ndamukong Suh, DT, Miami Dolphins (25)
Ndamukong Suh received a lot of criticism in his first season in Miami, but actually played extremely well—probably the best football we have seen in his career. However, it probably wasn’t well enough to justify the mind-bending contract the Dolphins handed him the preceding offseason, but that is a failing of the front office, not of Suh. He notched six sacks, 13 knockdowns, and 60 total defensive pressures, as well as five batted passes, and was used all over the line by Miami, where he was a genuinely destructive player. As such, he deserves his place this high in the Top 101, because the only real negatives to his play were the ludicrous 18 penalties, and the fact that his contract is bordering absurdity.
Best performance: Week 14 versus New York Giants: +6.6
Key stat: Suh recorded the fourth-highest pass-rushing productivity among NFL DTs (9.2).
28. Fletcher Cox, DE, Philadelphia Eagles (46)
Few defensive linemen in today’s NFL are asked to play two gaps on defense anymore. Philadelphia did ask that of their D-linemen in 2015, and Fletcher Cox was still able to notch 77 defensive pressures over the regular season, despite playing in a system that would require him to defend two gaps on early downs—and slow his advance to the quarterback because of it. Cox was one of the most troublesome players to block in the entire league, and a true force on the Philadelphia line. He could be even better in 2016 if freed from two-gapping responsibilities in a new defensive scheme.
Best performance: Week 10 versus Miami: +6.5
Key stat: Despite being asked to two-gap much of the time, Cox notched 77 total pressures and two batted passes as a pass-rusher.
29. Michael Bennett, DE, Seattle Seahawks (21)
Seemingly unblockable at times, Michael Bennett has had quite the rise from undrafted free agent to one of the league’s most consistently-excellent defensive linemen. 2015 marked his third straight season of above-average play, with the two before that not much worse, and he has become the lynchpin of a dominant Seattle defensive front. Bennett was one of the biggest factors in the wildcard victory over Minnesota, notching six total pressures and five defensive stops in that game, thoroughly wrecking several Viking drives almost on his own.
Best performance: Week 13 versus Minnesota: +7.8
Key stat: Including the playoffs, Bennett recorded 91 total pressures, the most among all 4-3 DEs.
30. Kawann Short, DT, Carolina Panthers (unranked)
The lower pick in the Carolina double-dip draft strategy of 2013 that saw them grab both Star Lotulelei and Kawann Short, it is the latter that has developed into the better player, and this season he was dominant against both the run and pass. Short notched multiple sacks in five games over the season and finished the year with 81 total pressures, including the playoff run. Even in the Super Bowl, he was one of the better performers for the Panthers, coming in on the losing side but acquitting himself well on the biggest stage.
Best performance: Week 7 versus Philadelphia: +6.9
Key stat: Short’s pass-rushing productivity of 11.2 was the third-highest among NFL DTs.
31. Richie Incognito, G, Buffalo Bills (unranked)
The reasons for his absence from the league prevents any feel-good comeback story, but Richie Incognito’s 2015 was an impressive season to behold. Producing by far the best football of his career, Incognito was one of the league’s best guards in 2015 after sitting out the season before. Only Baltimore’s Marshal Yanda graded higher overall, and only Denver’s Evan Mathis had a higher run-blocking grade over 16 games.
Best performance: Week 12 at Kansas City: +5.1
Key stat: After a year out of the game, Incognito earned an overall PFF grade of 90.0, the second-best mark among guards.
32. Russell Wilson, QB, Seattle Seahawks (unranked)
Far more than the game-managing label he has had to deal with for much of his career, Russell Wilson was excellent again in 2015—often without Marshawn Lynch to carry the load. Working behind a consistently suspect offensive line in Seattle, Wilson was pressured on 42.5 percent of dropbacks, a figure higher than all other quarterbacks other than Minnesota’s Teddy Bridgewater. Despite that, he was accurate on 71.6 percent of his passes under pressure, the third-best mark in the league. He also added to his case with one play against the Minnesota Vikings, which effectively decided that low-scoring battle in freezing conditions.
Best performance: Week 13 at Minnesota: +6.2
Key stat: Wilson had the league’s fourth-highest completion percentage (adjusted for drops, spikes, etc.), at 77.6 percent.
33. Cameron Jordan, DE, New Orleans Saints (unranked)
Cameron Jordan’s career has produced highs and lows as he has moved around the New Orleans’ defense, but 2015 was his best season to date, even if it doesn’t quite match the statistical high of 2013. This past season, he notched 10 sacks, 70 total pressures, five batted passes, and strong grades in the run game on the edge for the Saints. But for a relatively quiet ending to the season, with three straight average games, he could have ranked even higher. Overall, though, Jordan demonstrated he can be a difference-maker in a major way.
Best performance: Week 7 at Indianapolis: +9.2
Key stat: Jordan recorded 70 total pressures over the regular season and five batted passes when rushing the passer.
34. A.J. Green, WR, Cincinnati Bengals (92)
A.J. Green managed 86 receptions for 1,297 yards and 10 touchdowns last season, and while those numbers look merely average in the NFL landscape of 2015, that shouldn’t undermine the impressive season he produced to generate them. Green had the fourth-highest PFF grade for receivers behind only Antonio Brown, Julio jones, and Alshon Jeffery, and trumps the latter because he didn’t miss significant time over the season. Green is one of the league’s most consistently productive receivers, and had another excellent season in 2015.
Best performance: Week 3 at Baltimore: +3.3
Key stat: When Green was targeted, he had the second-highest WR rating in the league (121.9).
35. Travis Frederick, C, Dallas Cowboys (56)
Travis Frederick was pushed all the way for the All-Pro spot at center by Minnesota’s Joe Berger, and actually trailed the Viking in run-blocking grade, but his pass-protection set him apart and earned him the nod both there and on this list. While Berger surrendered 17 total pressures, Frederick was beaten for only 10 over the entire year, and did not yield a sack. He was also one of the best run-blockers in the league, trailing only Berger in that regard among centers, and is now the standard by which the position measures itself.
Best performance: Week 7 at New York Giants: +5.9
Key stat: Frederick didn’t allow a sack all season, and surrendered just 10 total pressures.
36. Chris Harris Jr., CB, Denver Broncos (4)
If you take away the two games against the Steelers, Harris would likely have been in the top 10 once again. He earned a +23.4 cumulative overall grade against the rest of the league this season, and a -7.4 grade in those two games against Pittsburgh (keep in mind that 0.0 is considered average on PFF’s cumulative grading scale). Harris also played through a significant shoulder injury down the stretch and into the playoffs, and yet in the Super Bowl, gave up just one catch for 11 yards. He is one of the league’s best corners and showed it again this season—as long as he wasn’t asked to cover Antonio Brown and company.
Best performance: Week 5 at Oakland: +2.9
Key stat: Harris Jr. recorded a PFF cumulative game grade of -7.4 against Pittsburgh this past season, and a +23.4 grade against everybody else.
37. Odell Beckham Jr., WR, New York Giants (13)
Maybe not quite the same pace as a year ago, but Odell Beckham Jr.’s season still ended with 1,450 yards and 13 touchdowns, not to mention the expected highlight-reel catches. There may be no receiver capable of making the kind of spectacular grabs Beckham makes look routine, and he has more than enough skills to be productive in every other way, too. His only real negative came in the one-on-one tussle he had with Josh Norman, causing him to earn a -4.8 penalty grade over the season, a mark only one other receiver (Tampa Bay’s Mike Evans) could do worse than.
Best performance: Week 12 at Washington: +3.8
Key stat: Beckham Jr. averaged 2.43 yards per route run, third-best among NFL WRs.
38. Doug Martin, RB, Tampa Bay Buccaneers (unranked)
Doug Martin had been somewhat AWOL since his excellent rookie campaign, beset by injury and just poor play, but this season we saw that star emerge again. Martin notched 1,402 yards to trail only Adrian Peterson in the chase for the rushing crown, but also broke 57 tackles—seven more than Peterson on 39 fewer carries, fumbling two fewer times over the season, as well. Martin accomplished this without the best run-blocking in the world, too, averaging 3.1 yards per carry after contact—almost a full yard more than Peterson—and the best mark in the league among players with more than 120 carries.
Best performance: Week 5 versus Jacksonville: +3.4
Key stat: Martin’s elusive rating of 65.7 was the highest in the NFL.
39. Earl Thomas, S, Seattle Seahawks (41)
No player brings a skill-set with him so vital to a defense as Earl Thomas does to the Seahawks. His unusual range and speed gives the Seattle defense the ability to play with a single-high free safety and still create impact plays over the middle of the field from that position. Other teams have tried to replicate Seattle’s defensive system, but without their version of Earl Thomas, it will always seem a poor imitation. Once again, he was instrumental in making plays from the middle of the field and cementing his spot as the prototype free safety in the league.
Best performance: Week 6 versus Carolina: +3.6
Key stat: Thomas earned the third-highest overall PFF grade among safeties (89.2) in 2015.
40. Joe Berger, C, Minnesota Vikings (unranked)
Joe Berger was one of the stories of the 2015 season—or, at least, would have been, if you could convince the league to care about center play. Thrust into a starting position when Pro-Bowler John Sullivan went down, Berger ended up starting all season and playing well enough to win the inaugural PFF John Hannah Award, given to the best run-blocker in the league. For a journeyman backup lineman to step in and play at an All-Pro kind of level is truly extraordinary, and should be far more talked about than it has been.
Best performance: Week 10 at Oakland: +5.8
Key stat: Berger had the highest run-blocking grade among any center in the league after being inserted as a starter following Sullivan’s injury.
41. Andrew Whitworth, LT, Cincinnati Bengals (16)
There are few more consistent players than Bengals LT Andrew Whitworth, who posted the ninth-consecutive positively-graded season of his career, representing every season PFF has been grading, with a retrospective 2006 in the works to complete his career. Whitworth allowed 23 total pressures over 1,124 snaps (including the playoffs) in 2015, and again graded positively as both a run-blocker and pass-protector—as he has every season of his career. The Bengal may be getting up there in years, but there remains few more consistently-excellent tackles than Whitworth.
Best Performance: Week 9 versus Cleveland: +4.6
Key stat: Whitworth allowed 20 total pressures over the season.
42. Jonathan Joseph, CB, Houston Texans (unranked)
There hasn’t been nearly enough written about how good Jonathan Joseph was in 2015. He may have had just one interception, but also notched 16 pass breakups and was beaten for an average of just 9.7 yards per catch over the year, being flagged just twice in the process. Only Josh Norman and Jason Verrett had a higher coverage grade than the Texans’ veteran, and he showed that, when healthy, he can still cover with the best of them.
Best performance: Week 3 versus Tampa Bay: +5.5
Key stat: Joseph notched 16 passes defensed, and was only beaten for an average of 9.7 yards per reception—one of the few corners in the league to be under 10 yards in that regard.
43. Larry Fitzgerald, WR, Arizona Cardinals (unranked)
A year ago, it looked like we were seeing the end of Larry Fitzgerald’s NFL career, but enter a rejuvenated Carson Palmer, and suddenly the old Fitzgerald was back to his reliable best. The Cardinals wideout dropped just three passes during the regular season, making that just 29 for his entire career (nine seasons, playoffs included). When you consider that Amari Cooper had 18 drops this season alone, it gives you some perspective on just how reliable Fitzgerald’s hands have always been. In the 2015 regular season, he caught 78.4 percent of the balls thrown his way, and was a key cog in a phenomenal Arizona offense.
Best performance: Week 3 versus San Francisco: +4.5
Key stat: Fitzgerald caught 78.4 percent of the passes thrown his way, the highest percentage among receivers to play 1,000 snaps.
44. Darius Slay, CB, Detroit Lions (unranked)
Another player stepping up his play in 2015 was Darius Slay, who earned positive grades in coverage against the run, and was only penalized three times, a very low figure for a cornerback in today’s NFL. Slay only had two interceptions, but notched a further 10 passes defensed and made a lot of quality plays for the Detroit secondary. Not without some hiccups to his game, there is room for Slay to improve even more going forward and potentially become one of the league’s best corners.
Best performance: Week 10 at Green Bay: +3.3
Key stat: Finished the regular season with the second best overall grade among corners at +15.9.
45. Justin Houston, OLB, Kansas City Chiefs (3)
Justin Houston is another player that saw injury bite and drag him down the rankings. When on the field, he was as good as he has ever been. In almost 400 fewer snaps than a year ago, Houston posted a cumulative grade that was not too far from his 2014 total; however, missing as much time as he did hurt the Chiefs overall, and managing just eight snaps in the Divisional Playoff game against the Patriots almost certainly had a major effect on the outcome of that game. Houston ended the year with 60 total pressures and four batted passes, but played just 77.4 percent of the team’s defensive snaps, down from 97.3 the year before.
Best performance: Week 10 at Denver: +9.4
Key stat: Houston recorded the fourth-best pass-rushing productivity among 3-4 OLBs, at 14.7.
46. Jamie Collins, LB, New England Patriots (40)
If Jamie Collins was a pleasant surprise for Patriots’ fans a year ago, he is now a consistent performer in that defense. Once again grading among the league’s best linebackers, Collins is one of the most athletic and versatile weapons at his position. He graded well in every facet of play PFF measures, posting 16 total pressures on blitzes, and notching 41 defensive stops. Collins was not beaten for a touchdown all season in coverage, and recorded an interception and five pass breakups.
Best performance: Week 13 versus Philadelphia: +5.3
Key stat: Collins was top-five in both pass-rushing productivity and run-stop percentage among 4-3 OLBs.
47. Mike Daniels, DE, Green Bay Packers (99)
Green Bay’s defense has been up and down in recent years, but Mike Daniels has only been getting better, and is now one of the league’s most disruptive players. He notched seven sacks in 2015, marking his third straight season of seven or more; in 2015, however, he increased his pressure total to 62 over 823 defensive snaps. Daniels generated pressure in every single game this past season, and ended the year with a playoff performance that averaged 4.5 pressures over two postseason games.
Best performance: Week 12 versus Chicago: +8.4
Key stat: Daniels recorded a pass-rushing productivity of 10.7, fourth-best among 3-4 DEs in 2015.
48. Linval Joseph, DT, Minnesota Vikings (unranked)
But for injury, Joseph could have found himself far higher up this list. For a stretch the season, the DT was one of the most dominant forces in the league. Against the Rams in Week 9, he was virtually unblockable, and almost single-handedly destroyed the rushing attack, notching seven stops and three total pressures that day. Joseph even put forth an excellent performance in Minnesota’s lone postseason game, returning to cause problems for the Seahawks’ rushing offense. This was by far the best season of Joseph’s career, and could signal the emergence of a new defensive stud.
Best performance: Week 9 versus St. Louis: +11.4
Key stat: Joseph earned the third-highest overall PFF grade (94.4) among all interior defenders, trailing only Aaron Donald and J.J. Watt.
49. Jason Verrett, CB, San Diego Chargers (unranked)
Verrett’s matchup with Amari Cooper produced one of the best tapes of the season, and gave us a glimpse into an AFC West battle we hope to see for years to come. There are still rough edges to his game, but the Charger quietly posted one of the best coverage grades of any corner this season, despite notching only three passes defensed to go along with his three interceptions. This is a product of tight coverage and making quick tackles before the first-down markers; he’s a player who just performs the fundamental duties of the position well.
Best performance: Week 8 at Baltimore: +3.2
Key stat: Verrett recorded the highest coverage grade per snap among all NFL cornerbacks last season, and was only penalized three times.
50. Delanie Walker, TE, Tennessee Titans (unranked)
The Titans didn’t have many bright spots on offense last season, but Delanie Walker was one player that excelled. He topped 1,000 receiving yards, despite playing fewer than 700 snaps over the season, catching six touchdowns and breaking 16 tackles with the ball in his hands. He caught 72.3 percent of the passes sent his way, and graded well as a run-blocker, too.
Best performance: Week 13 versus Jacksonville: +5.1
Key stat: Walker had the fourth-highest yards per route run among TEs, at 2.24.
51. Derrick Johnson, LB, Kansas City Chiefs (unranked)
A true Comeback Player of the Year candidate, Derrick Johnson was immediately back to his place as one of the better inside linebackers in the NFL. Johnson graded well against the run and in coverage, and only really failed to produce as a pass-rusher on the blitz, posting 18 total pressures from his 76 pass rushing snaps. He totaled 60 defensive stops and looked to be nowhere near the end of his career, despite his age.
Best performance: Week 11 at San Diego: +5.3
Key stat: Johnson produced the lowest yards per coverage snap among all linebackers, at 0.55.
52. Eric Berry, S, Kansas City Chiefs (unranked)
If Derrick Johnson was a legitimate Comeback Player of the Year Candidate, the no-brainer winner was Eric Berry, who posted arguably the best season of his career just months after beating cancer, and actually gaining muscle mass while he was doing it. Berry graded well against the run and pass this season, and was an inspirational story made even better by the fact that his play backed up every ounce of sentimentality.
Best performance: Week 5 versus Chicago: +4.2
Key stat: Berry posted the second-highest season grade of his career—just months after beating cancer.
53. K.J. Wright, LB, Seattle Seahawks (unranked)
Bobby Wagner gets all of the ink in the linebacker corps in Seattle, but K.J. Wright may be the better player. He certainly graded far better this season, and had one of the highest coverage grades among all NFL linebackers. He didn’t allow a single touchdown all year, despite being targeted a significant amount (78 times) in his coverage role within the Seahawks’ scheme.
Best performance: Week 8 at Dallas: +3.2
Key stat: The receiver in Wright’s coverage was targeted 78 times in 2015, but the Seahawk didn’t allow a single touchdown during the regular season.
54. Zack Martin, G, Dallas Cowboys (unranked)
As part of the best run-blocking line in football, Zack Martin allowed just one sack all season and 13 total pressures. He may not have been the best guard in any one area, but was very good in all of them, forming part of a dominant line that made Darren McFadden look like a Pro-Bowl caliber runner, despite having shaky QB-play for half of the season.
Best performance: Week 7 at New York Giants: +5.9
Key stat: Martin surrendered just one sack and 13 total pressures in 2015.
55. Doug Baldwin, WR, Seattle Seahawks (unranked)
Often shortchanged in terms of credit due for his play, Doug Baldwin is an excellent NFL receiver and had a fantastic season for the Seahawks. No receiver yielded a higher passer rating when targeted than Baldwin in 2015, giving his quarterback a passer rating of 141.0 when thrown at. He can play in the slot or outside, and simply produces whatever is asked of him.
Best performance: Week 12 versus Pittsburgh: +3.1
Key stat: When targeting Doug Baldwin, Russell Wilson had a passer rating of 141.0, the best mark when targeting any single receiver in the NFL.
56. T.J. Lang, G, Green Bay Packers (78)
T.J. Lang has been quietly improving for a while now, and has forced himself into the discussion among the best guards in the NFL. He was marginally the better of the two guards this past season for the Packers, and allowed just 18 total pressures over the year (to go along with solid run-blocking grades). This was the best season of Lang’s career, and marks the third-straight improvement over a full season. What will his 2016 hold?
Best performance: Week 12 versus Chicago: +6.4
Key stat: Lang allowed 18 total pressures over the season, but just two combined sacks and hits.
57. Calvin Johnson, WR, Detroit Lions (64)
In his final NFL season, Calvin Johnson didn’t produce his best year as a pro, but was still hugely impressive and did enough to plant himself firmly on this list. Johnson still played hard, earning impressive run-blocking grades to go along with his work as a receiver, and he finished the year with 88 catches for over 1,200 yards and nine touchdowns, despite Matthew Stafford struggling badly under pressure for much of the season. One of the most physically-dominant receivers of his era, it’s a shame we didn’t get to see Johnson sign off with a truly great season for the ages.
Best performance: Week 17 at Chicago: +5.0
Key stat: Johnson recorded the 11th-best drop rate among WRs in 2015.
58. Sean Lee, LB, Dallas Cowboys (unranked)
It’s no secret that when healthy, Sean Lee is one of the best linebackers in football, and for once we got to see the proof, as he held up for (nearly) the entire season. Lee has the range and instincts in coverage to match the best linebackers in the league, and is also a solid run defender. He also deserves a certain amount of kudos (or ridicule, depending on your viewpoint) for choosing to sit out a game rather than struggle through injury to secure himself a significant seven-figure bonus for hitting the required snap-count target.
Best performance: Week 2 at Philadelphia: +6.7
Key stat: Lee wasn’t beaten for a reception longer than 24 yards all season, allowing just one touchdown on 57 targets.
59. Jabaal Sheard, OLB, New England Patriots (unranked)
Signed to a two-year, $11 million contract in free agency, Sheard has probably already repaid that investment with the season he just produced for the Patriots. He was the seventh-highest-graded edge defender in the NFL, despite being part of a three-man rotation in New England, posting 58 total pressures and grading well against the run. Sheard was likely a key reason the Patriots felt they could move on from Chandler Jones, in addition to the off-field considerations of that deal.
Best performance: Week 14 at Houston: +5.6
Key stat: Sheard recorded the third-highest run stop percentage for edge defenders in 2015, at 10.7.
60. Allen Robinson, WR, Jacksonville Jaguars (unranked)
A key trait of Allen Robinson’s is his ability to make his quarterbacks look better—both in college and the NFL—by making spectacular plays downfield and winning a series of jump balls. Robinson was the league’s most consistent deep threat in 2015 because of his ability to win battles with defensive backs on 50/50 passes; he gained more than 650 yards on deep targets alone this past season.
Best performance: Week 13 at Tennessee: +4.6
Key stat: Robinson had the most yards on deep passes (20+ air yards) among NFL WRs this season, at 672 yards on 19 receptions.
61. Cliff Avril, DE, Seattle Seahawks (unranked)
There are several players on the Seahawks’ roster that get more press than Avril, but few that perform so consistently well. He wasn’t quite able to match Michael Bennett’s impact on the D-line last season, but he wasn’t far behind, notching 70 total pressures. Life became a lot easier for the Minnesota Vikings when Avril left the field injured, and his absence made a visible impact on the game.
Best performance: Week 10 versus Arizona: +6.3
Key stat: Avril recorded 70 total pressures and five batted passes on his pass rushes during the regular season.
62. Patrick Chung, S, New England Patriots (unranked)
Patrick Chung has quietly become an excellent player in New England’s defensive scheme, and ended the season as our fifth-highest-graded player at the position. With other players manning deep zones, Chung can operate in the box and cover the slot in various defensive packages, lining up this past season at pretty much every conceivable position in the back seven. Despite being targeted 66 times, he allowed only 36 receptions and notched eight pass defenses, though no picks.
Best performance: Week 8 versus Miami: +3.1
Key stat: Chung ended the season with an overall grade of 88.4, the fifth-highest mark among NFL safeties.
63. Dont’a Hightower, LB, New England Patriots (23)
Not quite at the level he attained a year ago, Dont’a Hightower was still a very impressive linebacker for the Patriots this past season. He is one of the better LBs in the league on the blitz, notching 24 total pressures, as well as grading well against the run. The Patriots keep him out of coverage relatively well; he was only targeted 22 times all season.
Best performance: Week 7 versus New York Jets: +7.5
Key stat: Hightower had the highest pass-rushing grade among all off-the-ball linebackers, and totaled 24 pressures on the blitz.
64. Brandon Marshall, WR, New York Jets (unranked)
Ryan Fitzpatrick had an impressive statistical season, but much of it was due to Brandon Marshall’s ability to go up and take the ball away from defensive backs and effectively erase the negative consequences of poor downfield inaccuracy (perhaps explaining why the Jets and Fitzpatrick have been unable to come to an agreement on a new contract this offseason). Marshall notched over 1,500 yards and scored 14 touchdowns, more than offsetting his inherent concentration lapses that resulted in 11 drops.
Best performance: Week 12 versus Miami: +4.2
Key stat: Marshall recorded the fifth-highest yards per route run figure among WRs in 2015, at 2.34.
65. Josh Sitton, G, Green Bay Packers (35)
There is no better pass-protecting guard in the NFL than Josh Sitton. From 2013 to 2014, he averaged just 9.5 total pressures; playing guard this season, he allowed just 16 over 17 games (including the playoffs). His performance has been good enough that the Packers believed him to be the best option they had at left tackle once injuries bit late in the season, and he started a game there against the Vikings on the final regular season encounter. He surrendered seven total pressures in that game, largely to Everson Griffen, but graded barely below average, which for a guard playing tackle, is actually quite an achievement.
Best performance: Week 12 versus Chicago: +4.9
Key stat: Josh Sitton is the best pass-protecting guard in football. He allowed three sacks this season, but just 12 total pressures (sacks included).
66. Pernell McPhee, OLB, Chicago Bears (52)
Chicago’s acquisition of McPhee in the 2015 offseason was likely—albeit with little fanfare—the best free-agency move of the year. In his first season as a Bear, he performed well as a pass-rusher and against the run. He notched 67 total pressures and 24 defensive stops, and brought exactly the kind of aggression and impact plays that the Chicago defense was crying out for. This marks two very fine seasons in a row now for McPhee, who will lead an interesting re-built Bears defense in 2016.
Best performance: Week 4 versus Oakland: +6.2
Key stat: McPhee’s 16.5 pass-rushing productivity was first among all NFL edge defenders.
67. Greg Olsen, TE, Carolina Panthers (62)
There wasn’t a more one-dimensional player in the league last season than Greg Olsen. With all of the receiver issues in Carolina, Olsen was incredible as a pass-catcher, making big plays with little help, grading behind only Rob Gronkowski in that facet. The only thing that keeps him as low as No. 67 on this list is his blocking grade, a mark that was lower than we have ever measured from a TE over the course of a season. He was significantly worse than any other TE in this regard, and the next worst figure came from Ed Dickson, his teammate.
Best performance: Greg Olsen posted the second-highest receiving grade among TEs in 2015, but the worst run-blocking grade.
Key stat: Divisional Playoffs versus Seattle: +4.1
68. Mitchell Schwartz, RT, Cleveland Browns (unranked)
Schwartz is arguably the best right tackle in football right now, and cashed in as such during free agency. The 2015 season was another step forward for a player that has been developing over his career, and was particularly impressive because of the list of pass-rushers he had to go up against. Most notably, he held Von Miller to just one pressure in Cleveland’s meeting with Denver, something that may have won the Carolina Panthers a Super Bowl if Mike Remmers had been able to match the performance.
Best performance: Week 5 at Baltimore: +4.4
Key stat: Schwartz faced a series of elite pass-rushers at right tackle, limiting Von Miller to a single pressure in Week 6.
69. Emmanuel Sanders, WR, Denver Broncos (42)
You wouldn’t ordinarily expect to hear about a receiver being held back by having Peyton Manning as his quarterback, but that’s a very legitimate argument to be made for Sanders in 2015. (He didn’t see his fortunes improve much in the games Brock Osweiler was starting, either.) Despite the poor-to-average QB play in Denver, Sanders was extremely reliable and maintained that strong level in the postseason, notching at least five catches and 62 yards in each of his three playoff games.
Best performance: Week 15 at Pittsburgh: +4.6
Key stat: Sanders earned the 11th-highest yards per route run figure in 2015, at 2.14.
70. Joe Staley, OT, San Francisco 49ers (88)
Another solid season from San Francisco’s Joe Staley, who was a fine performer over the year. Staley surrendered five sacks, and has had better seasons as a pass-blocker, but he recorded strong grades in run-blocking and on the move during screen plays. He may never return to his peak, when he was one of the best tackles in the league, if not the best for a season, but he remains a quality starter and a reliable presence for the 49ers, protecting the blindside of whomever lines up under center.
Best performance: Week 14 at Cleveland: +5.2
Key stat: Staley recorded positive grades in every area PFF measures: pass-blocking, run-blocking, screen-blocking, and penalties.
71. Charles Woodson, S, Oakland Raiders (unranked)
Peyton Manning went out on top with a Super Bowl victory, but the player from the 1998 draft that truly retired on a high in terms of play was Charles Woodson, who posted his best season since winning NFL Defensive Player of the Year in 2009. Woodson excelled playing free safety for the Raiders, making multiple interceptions on deep passes to the sideline that a player of his age is not supposed to have the range to get to. Woodson certainly has some more gas left in the tank, but elected to walk away while he was still playing well, and deserves a spot in the top 101 for his final season.
Best performance: Week 5 versus Denver: +3.3
Key stat: Woodson had the highest coverage grade among all safeties thanks largely to five interceptions despite playing deep center field at free safety in his final season.
72. Ryan Schraeder, RT, Atlanta Falcons (unranked)
Ryan Schraeder has improved each season of his NFL career, and in year three took a step towards being one of the best right tackles in the game. His run-blocking won’t wow, but his pass-blocking was excellent, with the second-best pass-blocking efficiency rating of all tackles on either side of the line. The only player to pass-block more efficiently in 2015 was Cleveland LT Joe Thomas, and he was only beaten for two sacks all year, one of which came from J.J. Watt. The entire Falcons’ O-line improved, but there may not have been a bigger jump than that of Schraeder’s.
Best performance: Week 5 versus Washington: +4.3
Key stat: Schraeder had the second-highest pass-blocking efficiency among all tackles at 97.2.
73. Jerrell Freeman, LB, Indianapolis Colts (unranked)
Jerrell Freeman’s season was a true redemption story, and one that earned him a nice new contract from the Chicago Bears in free agency. Freeman posted the best run-defense grade among all linebackers outside of Luke Kuechly, and graded positively across the board in every category PFF measures. He ended the season with 53 defensive stops, and seemed to be a completely different player than the one we saw struggle to a negative overall grade in 2014.
Best performance: Week 8 at Carolina: +8.2
Key stat: Freeman recorded the third-highest run-stop percentage among inside linebackers, at 12.8 percent.
74. Muhammad Wilkerson, DE, New York Jets (24)
When the Jets drafted Leonard Williams in 2015, the analysts at PFF spent some time drawing up potential defensive fronts on the white board, trying to work out how they would get all of their interior defenders on the field at the same time and still produce a viable pass-rush threat from the edge. It turns out the solution was to kick Wilkerson out as a pure edge rusher and expect him to get it done—and he did pretty well. Working largely as an edge rusher in 2015, Wilkerson posted 80 total pressures and graded well against the run. A broken leg cast a shadow over his season, but this was a fine year for him.
Best performance: Week 2 at Indianapolis: +5.8
Key stat: Wilkerson played at least 10 snaps at every single D-line technique spot.
75. Malik Jackson, DE, Denver Broncos (43)
While Derek Wolfe signed an extension early, Malik Jackson held out until free agency and cashed in with the Jaguars after a big season in Denver. Jackson became an every-down player and posted 60 total pressures from 530 snaps rushing the passer during the regular season, and then added 15 more during the playoffs. He may have benefitted from the sheer array of weaponry on the Broncos’ defense, but Jackson was one of the more impressive interior rushers in the league this past season.
Best performance: Week 13 at San Diego: +8.0
Key stat: Jackson notched the eighth-most total pressures among 3-4 DEs last season
76. Evan Mathis, G, Denver Broncos (59)
Injury and playing time hurt Evan Mathis, but we also saw him slip as a pass-blocker at times during the season. Pass protection has always been the weaker side of his game, but this season it was actually marginally below average, and he surrendered three sacks and 19 total pressures despite splitting time at the position. His run-blocking was still peerless, however, and he had the highest grade in the league among all guards. He may not destroy people, but he is the most consistent guard in football, rarely losing in the run game.
Best performance: Divisional playoffs versus Pittsburgh: +5.4 game grade
Key stat: Mathis was the highest-graded guard in run-blocking at +35.0; the second-highest was +24.6
77. Damon Harrison, NT, New York Jets (unranked)
There may be no better run defender in the game than Harrison, who in his final season for the Jets won the inaugural PFF Ted Washington award for run defense. He moved to the blue side of New York to the Giants in free agency. Harrison had the highest percentage of run plays in which he recorded a defensive stop we have ever measured for a defensive interior player, dating back to 2007, and only a lack of any real presence as a pass-rusher keeps him this far down the list. One-dimensional players can only be valued so highly.
Best performance: Week 11 at Houston: +6.7 grade
Key stat: Harrison had the highest run-stop percentage we have ever recorded for an interior defensive lineman at 18.1 percent
78. Drew Brees, QB, New Orleans Saints (37)
It’s easy to think of Brees as just a big contract hanging around the necks of the Saints, because they aren’t winning as many games anymore, but their franchise quarterback was still playing pretty well, if not quite as well as he has at his peak. He was accurate on 77.2 percent of all pass attempts adjusting for drops, which was seventh-best in the NFL, and still passed for over 4,800 yards.
Best performance: Week 17 at Atlanta: +5.4 grade
Key stat: Brees was the most accurate passer on throws over 20 yards at 50.6 percent
79. Trai Turner, G, Carolina Panthers (unranked)
The hints were there during his rookie campaign that Turner could be a pretty useful player, but those hints became broadcast over a megaphone during his second season. He allowed just one sack all season despite a passing attack that held the ball longer than most and targeted downfield often. He was also a force as a run-blocker, and the only real negative to his season was seven penalties.
Best performance: Week 6 at Seattle: +4.9 grade
Key stat: Turner had the seventh-highest pass-blocking efficiency among guards at 97.6
80. Tyler Eifert, TE, Cincinnati Bengals (unranked)
After an average rookie season and a sophomore campaign lost to injury, this was the first glimpse we had of the talent that made Eifert the No. 21 overall pick of the draft in 2013. It was overall an excellent season punctuated by a few poor games that really hurt his overall grade. At his best he looked like a legitimate matchup nightmare for defenses, with the ability to go downfield, as well as better blocking performances than most receiving TEs manage these days.
Best performance: Week 1 at Oakland: +4.5 grade
Key stat: Eifert had the 10th-highest yards per route run for TEs at 1.67
81. Jurrell Casey, DE, Tennessee Titans (82)
There are few more disruptive players than Casey, who continued to make a nuisance of himself for the Titans this past season despite a lack of help around him. He had nine sacks and 51 total pressures over the season. His effort is highlighted on one play against the Jets, where he recognized a breakdown on the defense that left Brandon Marshall completely uncovered before sprinting out to try and avert disaster and coming within inches of chasing Marshall down for the tackle downfield (see below).
Best performance: Week 3 versus Indianapolis: +7.0 grade
Key stat: Casey had the ninth-highest pass-rushing grade for defensive interior players at +25.0
82. Ronald Darby, CB, Buffalo Bills (unranked)
Rookie cornerbacks are not supposed to play as well as Darby did this past season. In contrast to Marcus Peters, who was very much boom-or-bust (eight interceptions and eight touchdowns surrendered), Darby was far more consistent in a down-to-down basis. He may have only notched two interceptions, but he also had 13 passes broken up and was beaten for an average of just 11.6 yards per reception.
Best performance: Week 4 versus Giants: +4.1 grade
Key stat: Darby had the eighth-highest coverage grade for CBs at +11.1
83. Jonathan Stewart, RB, Carolina Panthers (unranked)
When he has been healthy over his career, Stewart has always been an excellent running back, but this past season was one of his best in the Carolina backfield. He had the third-highest rushing grade of the season, and only Doug Martin forced more missed tackles over the season, if you include the playoffs. Cam Newton is a big help to the run game, but Stewart is the player that makes the run game tick when he is fit.
Best performance: Week 7 versus Philadelphia: +3.6 grade
Key stat: Stewart forced the 2nd most missed tackles in the run game at 54
84. Jordan Reed, TE, Washington Redskins (unranked)
Reed is at the forefront of a new breed of offensive weapon who ostensibly lines up at the TE position, but in effect is simply a big slot receiver who works the middle of the field and out-breaking patterns. Reed had the third-highest receiving grade among TEs, trailing only Rob Gronkowski and Greg Olsen, and scored 11 touchdowns from his 87 receptions. His blocking is ornamental at best, and three fumbles were disappointing, but Reed has become one of the most interesting receiving weapons in the league. That level of play earned him a $50 million extension from the Redskins last week.
Best performance: Week 16 at Philadelphia: +4.8 grade
Key stat: Reed led all TEs in yards per route run at 2.46
85. Lamar Miller, RB, Miami Dolphins (96)
For some reason Miller was never trusted to be the workhorse in the Miami backfield, but he made the most of the opportunities he did get over the past two seasons, and 2015 was his best year to date. He averaged 4.5 yards per carry and 2.8 yards per carry after first contact, breaking 28 tackles and scoring eight times on 194 attempts. He has an impressive home-run ability, with the second season running during which he had a run of 85 yards or more.
Best performance: Week 7 versus Houston: +4.2 grade
Key stat: Miller had the fifth-highest breakaway percentage (yards from runs over 15 yards) at 35.8 percent
86. Jarvis Landry, WR, Miami Dolphins (unranked)
Some people view slot receivers as a bit-part role player with limited value, but Landry was one of the best receivers in the game in 2015 operating largely from the slot. Of 891 snaps, Landry spent just 270 of them lined up out wide, but still caught 110 passes, posted 1,157 yards and forced 28 missed tackles after the catch to go along with another dozen on the 18 carries he had.
Best performance: Week 2 at Jacksonville: +4.6 grade
Key stat: Landry forced the second-most missed tackles at 28
87. Tamba Hali, OLB, Kansas City Chiefs (unranked)
At 32 years old, we may have seen the best of Hali, but he showed in 2015 he is still well-capable of being a force on defense and providing an able pass-rushing partner to Justin Houston on the edge. Hali posted one of the better seasons of his career, with 75 total pressures and one batted pass, including the playoffs. He ended the season on a bit of a downturn, but for a 10-game stretch before that point he was a dominant force.
Best performance: Week 11 at San Diego: +7.1 grade
Key stat: Hali was the 10th-highest overall graded edge defender
88. Alshon Jeffery, WR, Chicago Bears (unranked)
It’s unusual for a player missing as much time as Jeffery did to make the Top 101 list at all, so for him to be here at No. 88 shows just how dominant he was during the time he was on the field. Jeffery posted 807 yards in only 516 snaps, with only three drops from his 92 targets. Jeffery showed he was an elite receiver when he is on the field and healthy, and only those injury question marks are holding the Bears back from committing big money to him on a long-term extension.
Best performance: Week 8 versus Vikings: +3.9 grade
Key stat: Jeffery had the eighth-highest receiving grade, even though he missed seven games
89. Weston Richburg, C, New York Giants (unranked)
After struggling as a rookie at guard, Richburg was moved back to his natural position of center for the 2015 season and showed why he was a second-round pick with an impressive performance. He graded well in all areas of the game PFF measures, and was particularly impressive on the move and on screens for the Giants. He didn’t allow a sack all season long, and was only responsible for Eli Manning hitting the ground once over the season.
Best performance: Week 7 versus Dallas: +4.7 grade
Key stat: Richburg allowed only 12 total pressures, the third-fewest among centers last season
90. Derek Wolfe, DE, Denver Broncos (unranked)
It’s not too often a team re-signs one of its players during the season, only to see him perform even better once the money has hit his bank account. That’s precisely what happened with Wolfe, however, who ended the season with five straight positively graded games and didn’t have a single performance in the red all season long. He notched at least a sack in each of his final seven games and over that period totaled 34 pressures.
Best performance: AFC title game versus New England: +5.8 grade
Key stat: Wolfe had the highest run-stop percentage among 3-4 DEs at 12.9 percent
91. Robert Ayers, DE, New York Giants (unranked)
Seen by many as simply a first-round bust with the Broncos, Ayers has quietly developed into a fine player, first before leaving Denver and then in New York, parlaying his way into a healthy free-agent deal from the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. Ayers was one of the few bright spots on the Giants defense this past season, and yet still played just 581 total snaps, being held back by the Giants from being even more productive simply based on how much he was on the field. He notched 48 total pressures from 381 pass-rushing snaps.
Best performance: Week 8 at New Orleans: +5.2 grade
Key stat: Ayers had the ninth-highest pass-rushing productivity at 10.5
92. James Harrison, OLB, Pittsburgh Steelers (unranked)
At this point you have to begin to wonder if Harrison is legitimately ageless. A perennial underdog story, Harrison is now 37 years old and is still the best pass-rusher on the Steelers’ defense. He notched 48 total pressures, but also a strong grade against the run, and in all honesty shows no sign of truly declining despite his advanced age. If anything he ended the season stronger than he began it, with a sack in each of the Steelers’ two postseason games.
Best performance: Week 5 at San Diego: +7.1 grade
Key stat: Harrison had the third-highest run-stop percentage for 3-4 OLBs at 9.0
93. William Hayes, DE, St. Louis Rams (unranked)
Hayes was good enough this past season that the Rams were comfortable with cutting Chris Long entirely and passing the torch to the player that was outperforming him in the same position. Hayes had strong performance against both the run and pass, posting 47 total pressures from fewer than 600 total snaps of action. He earned himself a full-time starting role and could be primed for a huge season in 2016 with Aaron Donald still taking all of the attention on that D-line.
Best performance: Week 11 at Baltimore: +7.5 grade
Key stat: Hayes led all edge defenders in run-stop percentage at 11.5
94. Devin McCourty, S, New England Patriots (33)
Since moving from cornerback, McCourty has become one of the league’s most solid safeties, capable in all areas and with very few weaknesses to his game. 2015 marked another solid season, and saw him end the year with one of his best games, against Denver in the AFC Championship game in which he broke up a pass and made some nice plays in the run game.
Best performance: Week 5 at Dallas: +3.0 grade
Key stat: McCourty had the eighth-highest coverage grade for safeties at +8.0
95. Sammy Watkins, WR, Buffalo Bills (unranked)
There may have been more impressive raw statistical performances from wide receivers out there, but Watkins posted an impressive receiving grade and averaged 17.5 yards per reception in 2015. At times he was short-changed by the rest of the offense, as passes didn’t quite get to him even after he did excellent work to get open, and the trouble he gave Darrelle Revis in both of their matchups this season really encapsulates the improvement in his game from one year to the next.
Best performance: Week 13 versus Houston: +3.5 grade
Key stat: Watkins had the second-most yards from deep passes (20-plus air yards) in the entire league at 606 yards
96. Whitney Mercilus, OLB, Houston Texans (unranked)
It’s easy to forget that Mercilus was a former first-round pick, but this past season we finally got to see him deliver on some of that promise, with strong grades against both the run and pass. He notched 12 sacks and 58 total pressures as he partnered with Jadeveon Clowney to finally give J.J. Watt some help up front.
Best performance: Week 8 versus Tennessee: +5.4 grade
Key stat: Mercilus had the sixth-highest pass-rushing productivity for 3-4 OLBs at 12.3
97. Delvin Breaux, CB, New Orleans Saints (unranked)
Breaux had one of the more unusual seasons for a corner in the NFL. Having come to the Saints from the CFL, Breaux ended up starting all season and notching one of the better coverage grades (10th) of the year thanks to 15 passes defensed and three interceptions. For all the good, however, there was a lot of big plays against him, and he surrendered 10 touchdowns overall.
Best performance: Week 3 at Carolina: +3.9 grade
Key stat: Breaux allowed a catch once every 13.5 snaps he was on the field. The ninth-best mark for CBs
98. Reshad Jones, S, Miami Dolphins (unranked)
Jones narrowly missed the list a year ago, but makes it this time thanks to another year of exceptional play in the box against the run. Jones had by far the highest grade of any safety against the run, and a better mark by some distance than his own performance a year ago. Only a relatively average coverage grade prevents him from being higher up the list.
Best performance: Week 13 versus Baltimore: +3.5 grade
Key stat: Jones had the highest grade against the run for all safeties at +14.2
99. Andrew Norwell, G, Carolina Panthers (unranked)
Carolina entered the season with an offensive line that looked poor on paper, but the performance of players like Norwell turned it into a pretty good unit by the end of the year. Norwell was a very strong run-blocker and held his own in pass protection over the season, allowing just two sacks despite Carolina’s deep-focused aerial attack.
Best performance: Week 12 at Dallas: +4.9 grade
Key stat: Norwell was the fifth-highest-graded run-blocking guard at +20.8 over the season
100. Thomas Davis, LB, Carolina Panthers (38)
It’s tough to overstate the toughness of a guy who was prepared to play in the Super Bowl with a broken arm held together by padding and surgical intervention, but Davis once again showed all season he is one of the league’s best coverage linebackers. His run defense dropped off a little from previous seasons, however, causing his slip down the rankings.
Best performance: Week 14 versus Atlanta: +5.0 grade
Key stat: Davis had the second-highest coverage grade of any linebacker at +13.7, trailing only teammate Luke Kuechly
101. Adam Jones, CB, Cincinnati Bengals (unranked)
Jones has a lot working against him at this point in his career. He was 32 years old during the season and at 5-foot-10 is under the threshold for size that the NFL covets among cornerbacks, yet he still produces some of the best football of his career. He allowed just one touchdown all season and wasn’t beaten for a reception longer than 24 yards.
Best performance: Week 1 at Oakland: +4.1 grade
Key stat: Jones allowed an NFL passer rating of 60.0 when targeted – the fifth-best mark among CBs