2016 season performances that fall among the PFF era’s best

Analyst John Gatta identifies individual 2016 season campaigns that sit among the top-5 positionally since 2006.

| 1 month ago
Patriots QB Tom Brady

(Photo by Adam Glanzman/Getty Images)

2016 season performances that fall among the PFF era’s best

The 2016 NFL season was filled with a handful of outstanding individual performances. Looking back at each season since 2006 — what we consider the “Pro Football Focus era” — these were the guys whose 2016 performances shined the brightest in respect to the past 11 years.

Top 5 quarterback season grades since 2006 (of 417 qualifying QBs)

Season Team Player PFF overall Grade
2016 NE Tom Brady 99.3
2011 GB Aaron Rodgers 98.6
2011 NO Drew Brees 96.6
2014 GB Aaron Rodgers 95.7
2007 IND Peyton Manning 95.5

New England Patriots

Tom BradyQB

Tom Brady has been a top QB since PFF began grading games, and may just be the greatest signal-caller of all time. This past season was his highest-graded campaign yet — in fact, it was the highest-graded QB season we’ve ever seen. What did he do especially well? In a word, everything. In terms of his advanced stats, Brady recorded a 112.2 NFL passer rating (second among QBs), 78.5 adjusted completion percentage (third), a 129.5 NFL passer rating on deep passes (second), a 119.4 NFL passer rating when kept clean (second), and a 121.6 NFL passer rating on play action (second). “Clutchness” isn’t an easy thing to measure, but Brady averaged an absurd 11.4 yards per attempt (the NFL average was 7.3) on third downs in the 2016 season. For someone to finish top-5 in this array of categories is extraordinary. Brady has shown no signs of slowing down with age, either. By adding a few new weapons this offseason, will he somehow top his legendary 2016 performance in 2017?

Top 5 wide receiver season grades since 2006 (of 1,185 qualifying WRs)

Season Team Player PFF overall grade
2016 ATL Julio Jones 96.4
2015 PIT Antonio Brown 96.4
2015 ATL Julio Jones 94.4
2011 DET Calvin Johnson 93.6
2016 TB Mike Evans 93.3

Atlanta Falcons

Julio Jones, WR

If I was given the opportunity to create a WR from scratch, I’d politely decline and request Julio Jones instead. His sharp route-running gets him open more than most (averaged 17.1 yards per reception), while his size, strength, and speed create even more separation. His slate of physical attributes and fair amount of slot usage (23 percent of snaps) allow him to run the gamut of the route tree:

Out route In route Post route Go route
NFL QB rating when targeting Jones 118.8 134.6 137.5 109.6
NFL Average 85.5 81.6 98.5 84.7 

What sets Jones apart is his assertiveness at the catch point, which heightens his ability to make profound catches like this one:

Coupling all of this with elite QB play equals production. Jones gained 3.23 yards per route run last season. For perspective, no WR has been as efficient on a per-route basis in the last nine years. There simply aren’t many defensive backs that can cover Jones — he is a matchup nightmare. It’s remarkable dominance — like owning two of the three highest-graded WR seasons since 2006 — that makes Jones one of the NFL’s most exciting players.

Tampa Bay Buccaneers

Mike Evans, WR

Mike Evans has been a great receiver in the league since his induction, and in 2016, he took his game to a historic level. Maybe the biggest reason why was the sureness of his hands. After 15 drops on 89 catchable targets (16.9 percent drop rate) in 2015, Evans dropped only 7 of 103 catchable targets (6.8 percent drop rate) last season. Like Jones, Evans possesses elite athleticism that contributes to his effectiveness in the passing game. He posted his best game of the 2016 season against Seattle, where he torched the Seahawks’ secondary for 104 yards and two TDs, including one against cornerback Richard Sherman (who is as stingy as it gets in terms of surrendering touchdown receptions). Evans just makes plays. His favorite routes were corners and crossing routes, where Tampa Bay QBs recorded 158.3 and 130.3 passer ratings, respectively, when targeting him on these throws. Let’s not forget that he’s only 23 years old. The sky is absolutely the limit for Evans going forward, especially as quarterback Jameis Winston and the offensive weapons surrounding him improve.

Top 5 safety season grades since 2006 (of 938 qualifying safeties)

Season Team Player Overall Grade
2012 SD Eric Weddle 93.5
2016 BAL Eric Weddle 92.4
2016 NYG Landon Collins 91.7
2008 PHI Quintin Mikell 91.6
2011 PIT Troy Polamalu 91.5

Baltimore Ravens

Eric Weddle, S

Over the past 11 years, Weddle is responsible for the first and second-highest graded seasons amongst safeties. Moving from the Chargers’ organization to Baltimore, he was incredibly consistent in 2016. Weddle was deployed all over the field, spending 43 percent of his snaps at FS, 20 percent at SS, 15 percent at LB, 14 percent at CB, and 7 percent as an edge defender. It was this diverse usage that attributed to him making plays all over the field. Weddle has a complete game; he is a sure tackler (missed three tackles on 976 snaps in 2016), is very sound in coverage (allowed a reception every 45.4 snaps), and is proficient in the run game (6.6 run-stop percentage tied for fifth-best amongst safeties). Bottom line, Weddle is one the NFL’s best and most versatile playmakers, using his smarts and physical gifts to create havoc for offenses.

New York Giants

Landon Collins, S

What a difference a year makes. Collins was amongst the lowest-graded safeties in 2015; fast-forward to 2016, and he earned the third-highest safety grade since 2006. As I wrote recently, the Giants put Collins in a much better position to succeed in 2016, given his strengths. By playing closer to the line of scrimmage, Collins played more man coverage and shallow zones instead of being chiefly deployed in deep zones, as he was in 2015. His downhill and physical nature was very well-suited to this change. Collins made significantly more stops (his 49 stops were the most among safeties) while vastly improving his pass coverage (125.7 QB rating allowed in 2015 improved to 70.1 in 2016). Collins has crazy athleticism, balance, power, and is just 23 years old playing on one of the league’s better defenses. This exciting playmaker’s ceiling is off the charts — let’s see if he can break his own grade record in year three. 

Top 5 edge defender season grades since 2006 (of 1,065 qualifying edge defenders)

Season Team Player Overall grade
2013 STL Robert Quinn 98.8
2015 OAK Khalil Mack 95.9
2012 MIA Cameron Wake 94.6
2016 OAK Khalil Mack 93.9
2016 PHI Brandon Graham 93.3

Oakland Raiders

Khalil Mack, Edge

Since entering the league in 2014 as a rookie, Khalil Mack has earned the top grade among edge defenders each season. There are countless ways to quantify how dominant he is as a pass-rusher. Last season, he generated 98 total QB pressures (11 sacks, 11 QB hits, 76 QB hurries). Mack notched a pressure on 18.7 percent of his pass-rushing snaps, the highest rate in the NFL. To achieve this feat, he used a variety of moves to beat his blockers. Mack has an inhuman first step, so most of his pressure came from beating blockers to the outside (40 percent). He didn’t discriminate, though, as 32 percent of his pressure came on inside moves, with 16 percent coming from a bullrush, and 12 percent unblocked. Not only is Mack an elite pass-rusher, but he is also a menace in the run game. He recorded a position-high 39 run stops on his way to the third-highest run-defense grade amongst edge defenders. Mack’s explosiveness and strength is unparalleled; he is a generational talent that will likely continue to be one of the most dominant pass-rushers in the NFL.

Philadelphia Eagles

Brandon Graham, Edge

A name often forgotten when mentioning elite pass-rushers, Graham had both a career and historic season in 2016. The only players who pressured the quarterback more than him (83 total QB pressures) were Mack (98) and New York Giants edge defender Olivier Vernon (88). While it is true that his career sack conversion rate is below-average, he’s still a menace getting to the QB and negatively influencing the outcomes of passing plays. Similar to Mack, Graham isn’t a one-trick pony when it comes to beating his blockers. He relies on his powerful hands to drive his adversary deep into the pocket, as 31 percent of his pressures were the result of bullrushes. He is also very explosive off the line and can blow by the outside tackles (37 percent of the time). Absurdly consistent, Graham won’t get the media recognition until he nabs some more sacks. Regardless if this happens, his 2016 season was among the most productive pass-rushing performances we’ve ever seen in the PFF era.

| Analyst

John Gatta has been an analyst at Pro Football Focus since 2015, with a particular focus on the NFL.

  • Andre Taylor

    Safety Eric Weddle has exceeded every expectation i had for him after joining my Ravens, the addition of SS /FS Tony Jefferson should add another year of elite production to Weddles career. While both safeties are somewhat interchangeable, more than likely the younger and more physical Jefferson will play closer to the line-of-scrimmage. Leaving Weddle to play more deep safety, taking advantage of his experience, instincts and range. With Weddle taking less of a pounding, thus less wear and tear on his body. GM Ozzie Newsome rebuilt the secondary, adding SS Tony Jefferson, CB Brandon Carr, resigning S/CB Lardarius Webb. Drafting CB Marlon Humphries in the 1st round, to join CB Jimmy Smith, CB Tavon Young and Weddle in a much improved secondary. Hopefully the secondary will jell and give our pass rushers more time to get to the QB.

    • crosseyedlemon

      Coach Harbaugh gets good results with “old geezers” the way my favorite coach George Allen use to. You need those guys with the experience and instincts because they provide leadership for the younger guys as well as providing a positive locker room presence.

      • Andre Taylor

        Eric Weddle is far from an old geezer, the Chargers made a hugh mistake in the way they treated him. Its become a common theme in today’s society, teams preach family, loyalty, until they feel they have used you up. Then all of a sudden they treat guys like a used car that is traded in, all of a sudden the player isn’t this or that. I dont think its about Harbaugh, and more about GM Ozzie Newsome selecting players that will fit the teams scheme both offensively and defensively. Weddle and Tony Jefferson will be an outstanding pair of safeties for my Ravens.

    • Philip Matsikoudis

      That’s a Pro Bowl Safety duo, but neither one is a good as Eric Reed was. But I’m sure you’re satisfied with Weddle and Jefferson. Reed is arguably the best ever, and if not, in the conversation.

      • Andre Taylor

        Phillip i think you mean Ed Reed, and its unfair to compare Reed and Weddle. Both are two different types of players, Reed was a true FS, a centerfielder that controlled throwing windows that QB’s thought they had. While ok in run support, it wasn’t his role. However Weddle is a bit more physical and not as much of a centerfielder, he does take excellent angles to the ball. I don’t like comparing players from different era’s, because it puts to much pressure on the player to live up to the hype. Weddle and Jefferson both should both have good years, Jefferson’s arrival should extend Weddle’s career. With Jefferson being more of the run stopper, blitzer and laying the wood underneath. While Weddle takes less punishment in supporting the run and plays more deep-middle, the upgrade at the CB position should help both. If CB Jimmy Smith can stay healthy, with Carr sliding into the slot in the 3 WR sets, his lack if speed and athleticism will be better covered up. With rookie Marlon Humphrey, last years 6th round pick Maurice Canady really coming on in camp, and the team just signing Boykins to replace injured Tavon Young. The Ravens will have a complete set of good CB’s, GM Ozzie Newsome also resigned S/CB Ladarius Webb who may not be as fast and athletic as he use to be. But he knows the system and can still cover the slot and be the 3rd Safety. The defense will be top 5 if not better, what is needed is our offense to score some points.

        • Philip Matsikoudis

          Andre, thank you for the correction on Ed Reed. You may not like comparing players from different era’s but that is always going to happen because inevitably that is always going to happen because most people do, however, saying Ed Reed is from a different era is pushing it. There are still many players in the NFL playing that played when Ed Reed was roaming the Ravens’ secondary including Eric Weddle who is a contemporary with Reed since they played simultaneously in 7 seasons in the NFL. Regardless of your explanation, I doubt anybody who is considered knowledgeable about NFL history would ever think twice about Reed being a far superior player to Eric Weddle, as good as he is. I could somewhat understand your point if you were truly comparing Reed to Rick Volk, another great Baltimore Safety in NFL history. But really, I do not see why you cannot compare players from different eras. It depends how you do it. Do you compare them to how they were in their particular era against their own contemporaries like Reed & Weddle, or do you do it straight up as athletes. Whatever way you do it with Ed Reed he is in the conversation with guys like Ronnie Lott to Paul Krause, the All-Time NFL Interception leader as one of the greatest Safeties ever.