Yesterday, after numbers 20-16 were posted, the countdown received some criticism because of the lack of quarterbacks so far on the list. Luckily, there’s a pretty good one in the list today…
15. Justin Smith (DE – SF)
–I referred to Justin Smith’s impact in Aldon Smith’s ranking bio. In sum, he’s the best in the NFL at occupying blockers to free up lanes for his linebackers. Smith has posted some outstanding numbers for a 3-4 DE, but the stats in that position don’t indicate how great of a player he is. So instead of posting some numbers, I want to take ya’ll back to last season. In week 15, when the San Francisco 49ers played the New England Patriots on Monday Night Football, the Niners were dominating the Pats, 24-3 at halftime. But Justin Smith had just gotten injured in the late second quarter, tearing his triceps. In the second half, the Patriots moved the ball up and down the field, scoring at will. The Patriots scored 28 second half points. The next week, without a healthy Smith, the Niners got trounced by the Seahawks. In the playoffs, they gave up 30 points to the Packers, Falcons and Ravens. The defense was clearly not the same without Justin Smith healthy. He was obviously their MVP last season, and judging by how much the 49ers missed Smith on a defense that’s stacked with other great players, that speaks volumes about Smith’s greatness.
14. Peyton Manning (QB – DEN)
-I understand Peyton Manning had a nice year last season. I understand he’s one of the, if not the greatest QB to ever play football. But he missed a year of football, and I saw some signs of wearing down. I’m not so sure how dominant Manning if he had decided to play for the Cardinals rather than the Broncos, who were stacked offensively last season. Manning inherited an outstanding o-line and the NFL’s second best receiving duo. And he played very well, but I thought his arm strength, especially on deep passes, was noticeably weaker. And he went 1-2 against teams with winning records last season. Those are the negatives. Otherwise, Manning is the smartest QB in the NFL. He’s also the league’s best leader, especially now that Ray Lewis has retired. His value to a team cannot be questioned; he basically runs the practices throughout the offseason like a coach. Manning is still very accurate and can certainly win a Super Bowl, and he’s definitely one of the best players in the league. But it’s hard for me to rank him ahead of the next 13 players who are still in the primes of their careers.
13. Rob Gronkowski (TE – NE)
-In 2011, Rob Gronkowski had the greatest season for a tight end in NFL history. His 90-1,367-17 line was nothing short of incredible. Last year, he was near the top of the league in some receiving categories, despite missing five games and a broken forearm cutting his season short. Gronk provides a different element to the Patriots offense. He’s like a queen in a game of chess. It’s impossible to matchup with him with a linebacker because of his speed and receiving ability, and defensive backs are generally too small to cover him. The beauty of having Gronk is that defenses can’t substitute unless the offense does, so the Patriots can create mismatches in both the receiving game because of his physicality, athleticism and hands, and in the running game because of Gronk’s blocking ability, which has improved. The guy is the NFL’s biggest meathead, and perhaps the best partier. He also drinks two gallons of milk a day, and it’s shown on the field.
12. Clay Matthews (OLB – GB)
-Although he’s a recognizable name, and the media loves him, a lot of people don’t realize how great Matthews is. Playing OLB is not just about wrecking havoc against opposing QBs (Matthews had 17 sacks last season despite missing 4.5 games!). Half the job entails setting the edge in the running game and making plays in the backfield when a lane is created. Matthews is a very strong run defender. What’s also very impressive about Matthews is that he faces constant double teams because the Packers have yet to find a decent pass rusher to play on the opposite side of Matthews. Without Matthews, it’s safe to say the Packers would never sniff opposing QBs.
11. Cam Wake (DE – MIA)
-Wake is one of the NFL’s most underrated players. He’s the second best pass rusher in the game today, and it’s a sin that he’s not recognized as a super star. His numbers are sensational. For the last three years, he’s posted a combined 42 sacks and 128 QB pressures. No one has more combined sacks/pressures in the last three years. What makes Wake so great is that he has posted outstanding numbers as a stand up 3-4 OLB and with his hand in the ground as a 4-3 DE, speaking to his natural pass rushing ability. He also holds his own in the running game. In 2012, he had the third most run stuffs (40) in the NFL for a 4-3 DE. I believe his week 4 outing against the Cardinals (7 sacks, 7 pressures, 5 run stuffs) was the most brilliant performance by any player in any game all season.
*Photo Credit: IBTimes.com
Categories: NFL Feature Stories