We’ve finally reached the top 10! This list is filled with truly elite players at their position, so some these rankings are like splitting hairs between two excellent players are different positions. A huge tie-breaker for me is valuing players who are far and beyond the next best player at their position (comparative value). As I mentioned before, I’m also taking into account 2013 production, situation, consistency and health.
This edition features the NFL’s best linebacker, wide receiver, cornerback, and defensive tackle, as well as everyone’s favorite quarterback.
The top 10 players in the NFL starts now.
10. Calvin Johnson (WR – DET)
-Megatron is 6’5, 235 and runs a 4.39 ’40. He’s physically dominant and explosive. He gets off line of scrimmage (LOS) with ease, fights through constant double teams, and posts amazing numbers. Johnson uses his large frame very well, and he’s great in the open field and after catch. Last season, he broke Jerry Rice’s receiving record with 1964 receiving yards, and what it made it so impressive was the lack legitimate receiving options surrounding him. WRs Nate Burleson, Ryan Broyles and Titus Young all missed significant time for a variety of reasons, leaving the Lions with Mike Thomas and Kris Durham as their #2 and #3 WRs. Considering Detroit didn’t have much of a running game either, Johnson faced double-teams and bracket coverage almost every day. So the real question is: if Johnson is clearly the NFL’s best receiver and most dynamic pass catcher by far, why is he ranked so low? Well, Johnson had a major problem with drops last season, leading the league with 17. His high yardage amount was also very situational last season; it was a result of the Lions losing every game. Stafford led the NFL with more than 600 pass attempts, and Johnson led the league in targets with a whopping 199. Johnson’s low TD count (5 TDs in 2012) was also disappointing, especially considering he dropped 4 perfectly thrown passes in the end zone last season. Still, Megatron is a beast, and he could be even better if he worked on concentration. Even though he can make the most acrobatic of catches, most of the passes he dropped were rather routine.
9. Pat Willis (ILB – SF)
-A fierce competitor with an unmatched combination of instincts, closing speed, violence, and athleticism at the position, Willis has led a tough 49ers’ defense for quite some time. Willis is by far the best tackler in the NFL; he’s missed seven tackles in the last two years combined. He’s also made the most tackles in the last five years, tops in the league. But counting a statistic like tackles can be misguiding. I compare tackle numbers to passing yards for a QB. Usually the QBs that lead the NFL in passing yards are the ones who are throwing all game because their team or defense either bad (so they are playing catch up), or they have no running game (like Stafford). Likewise, the players who accumulate the most tackles are the ones who play for bad teams with bad defenses (because the defense is on the field much longer, and the offense uses the second half to run out the clock, providing a lot of tackling opportunities). This is why mainly Luke Kuechly led the league in tackles last season. The point is that Willis’ Niners are perhaps the league’s best defense. They led the NFL in forcing 3-and-outs and they won 12 games last year, so they weren’t on the field nearly as much as most defenses. Also, it’s more difficult to rack up tackles as a 3-4 ILB than a 4-3 ‘mike,’ especially when you’re running mate is a stud like Navarro Bowman. All of this speaks to how dominant and efficient Pat Willis is. PFF has ranked Willis in the top 3 at his position for FIVE straight seasons. He’s the closest thing to Ray Lewis in his prime that the NFL has to offer today in terms of intimidation, and he’s underrated in pass coverage. Willis has also stayed healthy throughout his grueling, hard-hitting career.
8. Darrelle Revis (CB – TB)
-The average QB rating on passes attempted to WRs in Revis’ coverage was 6.3.That’s absolutely incredible, but unfortunately, Revis only played two games last season because he tore his ACL in week 3. In 2011, he played all 16 games, and his opposing QB rating was 45.6. Revis led the league in pass deflections too, so it wasn’t like he wasn’t ever targeted. Having Revis on a defense provides a unique tactical advantage, as he can take away the team’s best receiver in single coverage. No other defensive back is even close to a healthy Revis in terms of the value he provides to a defense. He’s so reliable in coverage, that a safety over the top is often unnecessary, which means essentially the “Revis Effect” is like having an extra defender on the field (because that safety can be an extra man in the box or help cover a pass catching TE). Revis has only allowed 10 touchdowns since 2008 (5 seasons). He’s also a solid run defender. But we’ll see if he can regain complete form after tearing his ACL last season.
7. Geno Atkins (DT – CIN)
-There isn’t a more underrated player in the NFL than Geno Atkins. And this is a perfect example of the comparative value I described in the intro of this column. Atkins’ ranking is so high because the next best player at his position isn’t even remotely on the same level as Atkins. As Cincinnati’s 3-tech DT, Atkins led the league for all interior linemen with 49 QB hurries, a sensational 16 QB sacks, and 46 run stuffs. The next highest totals by any interior lineman were 36 hurries, 9 sacks and 33 stuffs. His 16 sacks ranked fourth in the NFL, regardless of position, and he’s a defensive tackle! Atkins’ graded out as the best DT in terms of defending the run AND getting to the QB. According to Football Outsiders and PFF, I’m ranking Atkins too low; he graded out as the second best player in the NFL, regardless of position, on both websites. He committed only one penalty last season, and he missed only four tackles. Atkins first step and initial burst off the LOS is unmatched. His snap anticipation is amazing, and his combination of quickness and strength allows him to penetrate into the backfield with ease almost every play. If you’ve never seen Atkins play, go watch a highlight reel (which is basically the entire game) of his week 16 game against Pittsburgh. He’s the main reason the Bengals made the playoffs and had a top-10 defense last season.
6. Drew Brees (QB – NO)
-New Orleans’ finest has thrown for more than 4,800 passing yards in each of the past five seasons, which is the most in the league by far. He also has more passing TDs and a better completion percentage in that span than any other player. We all know the impact that Brees has had for the Saints and the city. He’s already the greatest Saint to ever put on a uniform, and when it’s all said and done (in about 5 years), I think he’ll go down as one of the greatest QBs to ever play in NFL history. He has outstanding pocket presence, stepping up when necessary and constantly making defenders miss by quick, subtle steps to the left or right, and a great mental clock. He never misses games, and he’s absolutely the most accurate passer in the NFL. But 2012 taught us that Brees isn’t the same QB without Sean Payton calling the plays. There is no better QB for Payton’s scheme, as his system and play-calls bring out Brees’ strengths and hide his (few) weaknesses. Brees’ was much more turnover-prone last season, leading the NFL in interceptions. The offense had less flow than usual, as Brees had more 3-and-outs than any year in New Orleans. Brees also plays in a dome for the majority of the season, and his schedule was fairly easy defensively last season. I admit, these are nit-picky points, but you have to be consider these details when separating Brees from guys like Tom Brady and Aaron Rodgers.
The Top 5 will be posted tomorrow, completing the list of my top-40.
*Photo Credit: SportKings.com
Categories: NFL Feature Stories