Preseason rankings are always fun to look back on. In the offseason we unveiled our list of the figures we anticipated would most profoundly shape the 2015 NFL season. Here’s what it would have looked like if we knew then what we know now

By Gary Gramling
February 16, 2016
Timothy A. Clary/AFP/Getty Images

Last summer we introduced the first-ever MMQB 100, our list of the 100 people who would shape the 2015 season. The Super Bowl is the biggest story in any given NFL season, but an NFL season encompasses so much more than who hoists the Lombardi: franchise relocation, MVP race, player discipline, free agency, rule changes, media coverage and everything in between and beyond.

While many took exception to who was ranked where, The MMQB 100 is meant to be more of a primer for the upcoming season, giving our staffers a chance to show off some of the insights they’ve gleaned over the years, and allowing us to mold some expectations for the upcoming year, both in terms of on-the-field and off-the-field storylines.

Most of you got it (like I’ve always said, we have the smartest readers on the World Wide Web, and the best-smelling). Others weren’t so quick on the uptake, though certainly Rachel Nichols would have been a bold choice at the 99th-best player in the NFL. So with the 2015 season wrapped up, we’re taking a look back at who would have made up our MMQB 100 if we were making the list for the 2015 season today.

1. Peyton Manning, Quarterback, Denver Broncos (preseason rank: 9)

If this was indeed his final season, Manning certainly had a year to remember. It ended with his second Super Bowl win. But the path to that ring included the Hall of Famer’s worst season ever, featuring a foot injury, a benching and, oh yes, an Al Jazeera report implying that Manning’s wife was receiving HGH on his behalf.

2. Cam Newton, Quarterback, Carolina Panthers (Preseason: 51)

Cam was ranked relatively low last summer simply because we didn’t consider the Panthers serious Super Bowl contenders. (Whoops.) But, right to the end, Newton’s season was always about more than just his performance as the league’s runaway MVP. Are the touchdown celebrations too much? (No.) Should he have gone harder after that fumble? (Probably.) Was “pouty” the way to go in that Super Bowl presser? (Probably not.) Newton has doubled down on it all.

• SHOULD CAM HAVE GOTTEN THE FUMBLE?: Cam Newton has been under fire for not appearing to attempt to recover a fumble late in Super Bowl 50. Rather than pile on, we asked four men who took snaps on the NFL’s biggest stage to see what they’d have done.

3. Stan Kroenke, Owner, St. Louis Rams (Preseason: 8)

In the end, Kronke just wanted it more. The Race to L.A. was full of twists and turns, and Kroenke’s Rams got there by promising a new stadium that will presumably make Jerryland look like that decrepit shack where you store your broken lawnmower.

• THE INSIDE STORY OF L.A.: Peter King on how the owners’ vote swung to Stan Kroenke and the Rams.

4. Von Miller, Linebacker, Denver Broncos (Preseason: unranked)

In back to back games, he wrecked Tom Brady’s Patriots and then Cam Newton’s Panthers in a Super Bowl MVP performance. Should we have seen that coming? Maybe not, but as one of the league’s best edge rushers even before 2015, he probably deserved a spot on in the top 100 at least.

• VON MILLER REACHES THE TOP: Miller hit bottom two years ago. Now, after starring in Super Bowl 50, he’s solidified his status as a franchise player.

5. Jerry Jones, Owner, Dallas Cowboys (Preseason: 6)

Locally, Jones oversaw the addition of Greg Hardy, whose foot-in-the-mouth commentary added insult to injury during a lost Cowboys season. Nationally, Jones was reportedly an unofficial advisor for Stan Kroenke and had heavy influence over the decision to put the Rams in L.A.

6. Roger Goodell, Commissioner, NFL (Preseason: 2)

The days before the season opener included a humiliating loss in the Deflategate saga (which, sadly has at least one chapter left). But after that, it was a relatively quiet (especially compared to 2014) year for the commissioner. He generally stayed out of the way on L.A., and there were no major player discipline cases that cropped up.

7. Tom Brady, Quarterback, New England Patriots (Preseason: 1)

The year started with a decisive win over the league, overturning the four-game Deflategate suspension. He had an MVP-caliber regular season and shredded the Chiefs in the divisional playoffs, but an injury-ravaged offensive line (and Denver’s elite pass rush) was too much to overcome in the AFC title game.

• BRADY, BRUISED AND BEATEN: The Patriots offensive line didn’t do its job in the AFC title game, and there were day-after repercussions in New England.

8. John Elway, General Manager, Denver Broncos (Preseason: 91)

Bringing in Peyton Manning might be at the top of his front-office exec résumé, but it was the defense Elway built that won Super Bowl 50.

• ELWAYS FRONT-OFFICE RISE: Before building the Broncos into a winner, John Elway cut his teeth in player personnel by watching his father.

9. Ron Rivera, Head Coach, Carolina Panthers (Preseason: unranked)

Many Panthers players remarked on the closeness and camaraderie of this Panthers team. That’s a credit to Rivera, who also oversaw an elite defense and the NFL MVP en route to winning 17 games.

• DITKA’S LASTING INFLUENCE ON RON RIVERA: Rivera was a member of the 1985 ‘Super Bowl Shuffle’ Bears, and he’s finally recaptured some of that old magic in Carolina

10. Dean Blandino, Vice President of Officiating, NFL (Preseason: 33)

Blandino’s officials were under fire all year, cited not only mistakes on judgment calls but for simple things, like basic rules interpretations. That some of the most high-profile gaffes occurred in prime time games (K.J. Wright’s illegal bat in Detroit-Seattle; clock allowed to run after a kickoff return in Pittsburgh-San Diego; the infamous inadvertent whistle, then later failing to stop the clock properly at the end of Buffalo-New England) surely exacerbated the problem, but there’s no doubt that officials were in the headlines too often in 2015.

• THE OFFICIATING MESS: Are things really as bad as they seem, or are mistakes being amplified by the constant scrutiny of every play by everyone from every angle?

11. Gary Kubiak, Head Coach, Denver Broncos (Preseason: unranked)

His offense never quite meshed with Peyton Manning, and ultimately Kubiak had to make a choice between a shaky, aging Hall of Famer, and a shaky, unproven up-and-comer in Brock Osweiler. Considering what the Broncos D did, perhaps Osweiler could have managed his way to victories in Denver’s three postseason games. But Kubiak made the decision to go with Manning, and the end result was a Lombardi Trophy.

12. Dean Spanos, Team President and CEO, San Diego Chargers (Preseason: 34)

In regards to L.A., the old guard reportedly preferred Spanos and his Carson project. Instead, Stan Kroenke’s palace in Inglewood carried the day. Now, Spanos will spend 2016 trying to work out a deal to keep the Chargers in San Diego, with the fallback plan of becoming Kroenke’s tenant.

13. Chip Kelly, Head Coach, Philadelphia Eagles (Preseason: 3)

Kelly didn’t do things the traditional way as a coach, and that didn’t always go over well with his players. But his work as a personnel man was ultimately his undoing in Philly.

• CHIP KELLY, TAKE TWO: The 49ers’ bold move to hire Chip Kelly leads to questions about how much the ex-Eagles coach learned in his first NFL job.

Scott Halleran/Getty Images

14. J.J. Watt, Defensive Lineman, Houston Texans (Preseason: 16)

His greatness—he took home his third Defensive Player of the Year award—is easy to take for granted in the relative anonymity of the AFC South. But the Texans won the division crown for the third time in five years. And if you were take away Watt, it’s easy to envision the 2015 Texans team finishing somewhere in the 5-11 or 4-12 range.

15. Bennet Omalu, Neuropathologist (Preseason: unranked)

There is still plenty to learn about CTE and its effects on the brain. But due in large part to Omalu’s work, and the Will Smith film it inspired, the discussion of head trauma has moved to the forefront.

• WE SCREENED CONCUSSION WITH 70 FORMER PLAYERS: For some, the Will Smith film was a panic-inducing horror flick.

16. Rich McKay, Co-Chairman, NFL Competition Committee (Preseason: 10)

The longer extra point looks like it’s here to stay. And the rule change played a big role in the AFC title game; the reliable Stephen Gostkowski pushed an early extra point wide, his first PAT miss since 2006.

17. Wade Phillips, Defensive Coordinator, Denver Broncos (Preseason: unranked)

While it was Von Miller and DeMarcus Ware racking up sacks in Super Bowl 50, Phillips’ brilliant scheme was instrumental in getting them there; one game after beating up Tom Brady, Phillips’ defense gave Cam Newton similar treatment. And 47 years into his coaching career, Phillips had his first Super Bowl ring.

• ‘WE READ THEM LIKE A BOOK’:  Wade Phillips utilized ‘green-dog’ blitzes and an extra lineman to overwhelm a Panthers offense that had no answers in Super Bowl 50.

18. Bill Belichick, Head Coach, New England Patriots (Preseason: 4)

He didn’t have to manage the early part of the season without Tom Brady, but Belichick had the Patriots focused throughout the season. It showed during a 10-0 start that featured not only an on-point Brady, but a dominating pass rush on the other side of the ball. A struggling offensive line leading led to late-season struggles (New England lost its final three road games), but despite a wild offseason, Belichick once again had the Patriots in the Super Bowl conversation.

19. Carson Palmer, Quarterback, Arizona Cardinals (Preseason: unranked)

The image of Palmer’s NFC title game collapse is still fresh in everyone’s minds; and Palmer was undeniably atrocious in that game and shaky in the divisional-playoff win over Green Bay. But for the bulk of the regular season, he was a surprise MVP contender, embracing Bruce Arians’ Have Fun, Throw It Deep philosophy.

• A QUARTERBACK AND HIS GAME PLAN: Peter King gets an unprecedented look at just how a quarterback absorbs the complexity of an NFL game plan.

20. Ted Wells, Special Investigator (Preseason: 80)

Deflategate was more than a little bit silly to begin with. But Wells report (the science behind it debunked by fifth-grade science fair projects across the six New England states) not only added a layer of unintentional comedy, but seemingly erased any chance of ever getting to the bottom of what (if anything) went on with a couple of Patriots equipment managers (including the “Deflator,” because, y’know, weight loss), a bag of balls and a pregame pee break. Adding to the absurdity was the decision to hire outside firm Exponent, perhaps best known for battling claims related to second-hand smoke and asbestos (so, basically, this). Another courtroom battle looms, but with the NFL’s case built on Wells’ report, it seems past time for the league to cut its losses.

21. Russell Wilson, Quarterback, Seattle Seahawks (Preseason: 5)

As great as he had been in his first three NFL seasons, a new Wilson emerged in the second half of 2015. With Marshawn Lynch and Jimmy Graham out, the Seahawks spread things out, and a newly confident Wilson ripped apart opposing defenses, showing new-found confidence within the pocket to go with his exceptional improvisational skills. A sieve of an offensive line and a slow start in Carolina in the playoffs undermined a third consecutive Super Bowl trip, but there’s no denying that Wilson was one of football’s five best players in 2015.

22. Eric Grubman, Executive Vice President, NFL (Preseason: 29)

While Goodell generally took himself out of the L.A. equation, Grubman (according to ESPN) emerged as the league office’s biggest player in the L.A. drama.

23. Vontaze Burfict, Linebacker, Cincinnati Bengals (Preseason: unranked)

It’s a violent sport, but Burfict’s actions on the field befit the term “sociopath.” The NFL, unmoved by any player safety risks that don’t draw the public’s ire, was finally forced to act after Burfict’s filthy hit on Antonio Brown late in an AFC wild card game. Burfict’s actions helped sink the seasons of two teams: The Bengals, who were almost certainly going to win before Burfict went head-hunting, and the Steelers, who lost Brown for the Divisional playoff game in Denver and had a limited Ben Roethlisberger due to a shoulder injury suffered on a Burfict sack. (Ask Steelers fans if they thought that hit was clean.)

24. Aaron Rodgers, Quarterback, Green Bay Packers (Preseason: 7)

He lost his top receiver, Jordy Nelson, in the preseason, and new play-caller (and close friend) Tom Clements had his play-calling duties stripped later in the year. Through it all, the reigning MVP never looked like himself in 2015. Of course, that didn’t stop him from delivering the season’s two most memorable plays: Hail Marys in Detroit and Arizona.

25. Luke Kuechly, Linebacker, Carolina Panthers (Preseason: unranked)

(Note: Last summer I thought Kuechly and Dez Bryant were the most glaring omissions on our list.) Kuechly was the rock on the defensive side of the ball for the 17-win Panthers. His sideline-to-sideline range and toughness in the box are obvious. But what makes Kuechly special are those moments when you’re watching on TV and say to yourself nice play by the defensive back, only to realize it’s No. 59. His postseason included two pick-sixes in the two games leading up to the Super Bowl, and in Santa Clara he dominated the middle of the field. If the Panthers had mounted a late touchdown drive and stolen the win, he would have been on the short list of MVP candidates.

• LUKE KUECHLY, THE GENTLEMAN LINEBACKER: Four years at a Catholic prep school helped make Kuechly a ‘nice boy’ off the field, and a ferocious competitor on it.

26. Robert Kraft, Owner, New England Patriots (Preseason: 14)

Once Judge Richard Berman handed the NFL a crushing Deflategate loss to Tom Brady, all eyes turned to Kraft. To the chagrin of Patriots Nation, the owner had moved on, opting not to try to recoup the lost first-round pick or $1 million fine levied by the league in Deflategate.

27. Mike Shula, Offensive Coordinator, Carolina Panthers (Preseason: unranked)

Shula deserves an enormous amount of credit for the offense he built around his uniquely skilled superstar quarterback. Despite a suspect offensive line and the loss of top receiver Kelvin Benjamin to a torn ACL in training camp, the Panthers boasted the NFL’s highest-scoring offense. Of course, Shula was also outmaneuvered by Broncos defensive coordinator Wade Phillips in Super Bowl 50. Perhaps he didn’t feel his young offense was capable of handling changes going into the season’s final games, but Broncos linebacker Brandon Marshall summed it up like this: “They did everything that we saw on film. That’s the crazy thing. You’d think with two weeks to prepare for the Super Bowl, they would do a new wrinkle. They did everything the same. Nothing new.”

28. Johnny Manziel, Quarterback, Cleveland Browns (Preseason: 69)

Hopefully, this is rock bottom for Manziel. After showing little in the way of a starting NFL quarterback on the field, Manziel allegedly skipped Week 17 to go to Vegas. Then, more troublingly, he was accused of assaulting his girlfriend. There’s a good chance he’s done as a football player; at this point he needs to seek help to become a functioning member of society.

29. Mike McCarthy, Head Coach, Green Bay Packers (Preseason: 82)

Last summer he handed play-calling duties over to Tom Clements. Late in the season, he took them back as the Packers offense sputtered through a disappointing season.

30. Bruce Arians, Head Coach, Arizona Cardinals (Preseason: 79)

He has built the Cardinals offense in his image: Big risks, big rewards. This time around, with Carson Palmer healthy (or at least in the lineup) for the entire season, the Cardinals won 14 games on their way to an NFC Championship Game appearance.

31. Adrian Peterson, Running Back, Minnesota Vikings (Preseason: 11)

At age 30 and coming off a full-year layoff (after pleading no contest to a misdemeanor charge of recklessly assaulting his 4-year-old son), there was uncertainty surrounding Peterson. He responded with his third career rushing title, helping the Vikings to their first NFC title in six years.

32. David Gettleman, General Manager, Carolina Panthers (Preseason: unranked)

Draft Twitter pointed and laughed when Gettleman took defensive tackles with each of his first two picks as Carolina’s general manager, in 2013 (Star Lotulelei and Kawann Short). And certainly former Panthers GM Marty Hurney deserves credit for bringing in Cam Newton, Luke Kuechly, Thomas Davis and Josh Hurney. But it was Gettleman’s choice to stay the course, retaining Ron Rivera for the long term and helping build an offense suited to Newton’s strengths. Carolina won 17 games in 2015. Unfortunately, the team Gettleman helped build saved its worst game for last.

33. The Thursday Night Football Viewer (Preseason: 45)

Once again TNF dominated the ratings. And during Super Bowl week, the league announced a two-year, $450 million split deal with CBS and NBC to broadcast the NFL on Thursday night. For league constantly on the hunt for revenue, Thursday has been a gold mine—thanks to you, the viewer!

34. DeMarco Murray, Running Back, Philadelphia Eagles (Preseason: 58)

The poster boy for Chip Kelly’s disastrous run as a personnel man, Murray was ineffective and ill-fitted for Kelly’s offense. One year after winning the rushing title and signing a five-year, $40-million deal that included $21 million guaranteed, Murray finished 27th in rushing and had the sixth-lowest yard-per-carry average (3.64) among the 47 players who had 100 or more carries.

35. Pete Carroll, Head Coach, Seattle Seahawks (Preseason: 13)

Carroll weathered the early-season storm of the Kam Chancellor holdout and a tumultuous year from Marshawn Lynch. The Seahawks adapted, though, and by the end of the year they were one of the four best teams in the NFL.

36. Jeffrey Kessler, Attorney, Winston & Strawn (Preseason: 54)

“There's never been a punishment in the history of the NFL for being aware of someone else's misconduct.” Kessler, the players’ favorite lawyer, continues to steamroll the NFL in court, this time faring much better than Roger Goodell in Richard Berman’s courtroom, leading to the vacating of Tom Brady’s four-game Deflategate suspension.

37. Kam Chancellor, Safety, Seattle Seahawks (Preseason: unranked)

You just don’t see holdouts leak into the season anymore. Until Chancellor. The Seahawks’ All-Pro safety sat out the year’s first two games, both narrow losses for Seattle.

38. Andrew Luck, Quarterback, Indianapolis Colts (Preseason: 12)

Luck was supposed to be primed for an MVP season, making the Colts Super Bowl contenders. Instead he struggled mightily early, presumably playing through injury, before sitting out the season’s final two months with a lacerated kidney and an abdominal injury. A young franchise quarterback who tends to hold on to the ball, plus a shaky offensive line, turned out to be a disastrous recipe as the Colts missed the playoffs for the first time in Luck’s career.

39. Ben Roethlisberger, Quarterback, Pittsburgh Steelers (Preseason: 47)

The injury bug bit Roethlisberger repeatedly in 2015—separate knee and foot injuries in the regular season, then a shoulder injury in the playoffs. When he was healthy, he orchestrated a terrifyingly explosive offense (just ask the Broncos, whom Roethlisberger shredded for 380 yards and three second-half touchdowns in a Week 15 win).

40. Josh Norman, Cornerback, Carolina Panthers (Preseason: unranked)

He emerged as Richard Sherman East in 2015; a big, brash and really, really good corner. And in a contract year, no less.

41. Rob Gronkowski, Tight End, New England Patriots (Preseason: 37)

Once again, Gronk was virtually unstoppable when healthy. He was a one-man army in the AFC title game, with eight catches for 144 yards and a late touchdown that put New England in a position to force overtime.

42. Greg Hardy, Defensive End, Dallas Cowboys (Preseason: 35)

From a pass-rush standpoint, Hardy was exactly what the Cowboys needed: six sacks, 20 QB hits. And in every other way he was everything this team couldn’t handle: a loose cannon on the sideline, an embarrassment in front of microphones and cameras in the locker room and just another sideshow for a team that showed no resiliency as the season collapsed.

43. Andy Dalton, Quarterback, Cincinnati Bengals (Preseason: 38)

This was the year Dalton was going to get that playoff win. He was playing his best football, and the Bengals had the best roster in football surrounding him. Instead, one bad decision that resulted in an interception, and a fluke injury on the ensuing tackle, ended his season.

44. Andy Reid, Head Coach, Kansas City Chiefs (Preseason: unranked)

“I just told them, ‘I’ve never been 1-5. It’s a new experience for all of us, probably. The question is, What are we gonna do about it?’ ” Reid and the Chiefs merely ran off 11 straight wins and advanced to the divisional round.

45. Jed York, CEO, San Francisco 49ers (Preseason: 30)

After the ugly divorce with Jim Harbaugh, the surprise promotion of Jim Tomsula and the surprise retirement of several key players, York’s 49ers fell apart. The 50th Super Bowl, which his Niners hosted in Levi’s Stadium, did go off without a hitch, with the exception of some complaints about the turf.

46. Antonio Brown, Wide Receiver, Pittsburgh Steelers (Preseason: unranked)

The fantasy football MVP, Brown put up career highs in catches (136) and receiving yards (1,834) despite Ben Roethlisberger’s injury problems.

47. Richard Berman, Senior Judge, U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York (Preseason: unranked)

In the early days of Deflategate, the league seemed to win a battle when it preemptively filed its case in New York and was allowed to argue on its home turf rather than in player-friendly Minnesota. In a case of careful what you wish for, the NFL’s lawyers ended up arguing in front of Berman. It was a best-case scenario for Brady and a worst-case scenario for the league, as Berman vacated Brady’s suspension and he was under center on opening night.

48. Hue Jackson, Offensive Coordinator, Cincinnati Bengals (Preseason: unranked)

Jackson turned Andy Dalton from a game manager to a borderline MVP candidate. Heck, he nearly won a playoff game with AJ McCarron. And after the season, Jackson was among the hottest head-coaching candidates, with the Browns winning his services.

• WHAT A HEAD-COACHING INTERVIEW IS LIKE: NFL head coaches endure a grueling hiring process. Here’s what goes on behind closed doors.

49. Odell Beckham Jr., Wide Receiver, New York Giants (Preseason: 31)

He was dominant when given a chance, and criminally underused at big moments early in the season when the likes of Larry Donnell, Jerome Cunningham and Preston Parker were letting games slip through their hands. But the lasting image of Beckham, for now, is of him launching into a gratuitous helmet-to-helmet hit on Josh Norman.

50. John Schneider, General Manager, Seattle Seahawks (Preseason: unranked)

He got Russell Wilson signed, and he got Kam Chancellor back on the field after an early-season holdout. But the Jimmy Graham trade didn’t work out; the Seahawks were actually more explosive after Graham’s season-ending knee injury. You get the feeling that, with Wilson now taking up a franchise QB-sized chunk out of the salary cap, Schneider’s job is just getting started.

51. Junior Seau, Pro Football Hall of Fame Inductee (Preseason: 64)

The late, legendary linebacker was inducted into the Hall of Fame in August. Regardless of how the ceremony was handled, it was going to be a moment that would honor Seau’s greatness, and a stark reminder of the dangers inherent in the game and the damage it does over time. There was also controversy, as Seau’s daughter, Sydney, was not going to be allowed to give a speech on her father’s behalf, in accordance to a Hall of Fame policy. In the end, the Hall did the right thing and yielded the floor to Sydney, who delivered a speech to remember.

52. Kirk Cousins, Quarterback, Washington (Preseason: unranked)

The surprise winner of Washington’s three-way QB derby last summer, Cousins was 2015’s most surprising success story. He put himself in line for a franchise contract this offseason. And he cemented his place in postgame press… uh, interaction?... history.

• THE BOOKS OF COUSINS: The Washington QB is on a constant quest to better himself as a player and person. Kirk Cousins may not be the best QB in the NFL, but he’s making the case that he belongs.

53. Charlie Sly, Pharmaceutical Specialist (Preseason: unranked)

The reluctant whistleblower, Sly is the man at the center of the Al Jazeera/Peyton Manning HGH report. Whether Sly, an intern at the anti-aging Guyer Institute in 2011 (or 2013, depending on whom you believe), would have known if HGH was indeed being delivered to Ashley Manning on Peyton’s behalf is debatable at best, and Al Jazeera immediately backed off that claim after its special aired. Seemingly for comedic purposes, two private investigators from the Manning camp paid a visit to Sly, one that resulted in a 911 call, a recording (in portrait mode, of course) of Sly recanting all claims he made that Al Jazeera caught on its hidden cameras, and Sly saying the PIs were pretty good dudes. (Though, much to the chagrin of those wearing the shiniest tinfoil hats, Sly did not need any additional motivation to recant; his career depends on the trust of high-profile athletes.)

54. Calvin Johnson, Wide Receiver, Detroit Lions (Preseason: unranked)

It appears Johnson is done. Much like Barry Sanders two decades ago, Johnson will reportedly choose to retire early. There’s no doubt he has something left in the tank, though. With 88 catches for 1,214 yards, Johnson was a bright spot in a disappointing season for Detroit. His Thanksgiving dominance in a blowout win over the Eagles stood out as a vintage performance.

55. Sarah Thomas, Line Judge, NFL (Preseason: 19)

She became the first full-time female official in NFL history, and Thomas—like any good official—went largely unnoticed during the season. Unfortunately, the same can’t be said for Pete Morelli’s crew, of which she was a part. Among their high-profile gaffes was the clock running off an extra 18 seconds before what would be the Steelers’ game-winning drive on a Monday night in San Diego (side judge Rob Vernatchi was suspended). After a near-meltdown in the Cardinals-49ers Week 12 game, the crew was demoted from the Week 13 Sunday night game.

56. Chuck Pagano, Head Coach, Indianapolis Colts (Preseason: unranked)

Pagano’s seat was seemingly the hottest all season. In the final year of his contract, the Colts, Super Bowl hopefuls, fell to also-ran status and lost the AFC South to the Texans. He was a defensive-minded coach of a team that wasn’t very good defensively, and there was that play, but stunningly, Pagano received a four-year extension after the season, as Indy chose continuity.

57. Eric Berry, Safety, Kansas City Chiefs (Preseason: unranked)

The feel-good story of the fall, Berry returned from Hodgkin’s lymphoma and, amazingly, didn’t seem to lose a step. He was a first-team All-Pro and, quite deservingly, the Comeback Player of the Year.

58. Drew Brees, New Orleans Saints (Preseason: 27)

It was another trying year for Brees, in part because his massive contract limits New Orleans’ cap flexibility but also because the Saints haven’t used what flexibility they have very well. (Hey, no more Jimmy Graham, but here’s Brandon Coleman to throw to.) Early in the year it looked as if Brees’s arm was pretty much shot, but by the end he was one of the NFL’s best again. He threw for 1,388 yards, 9 TD and 0 INT in leading the Saints to three wins in their final four games.

59. Mark Davis, Owner, Oakland Raiders (Preseason: 57)

The Miss Congeniality of the L.A. beauty pageant, Davis seemingly attached his Raiders to Dean Spanos’s Chargers and then hung on for dear life. His franchise was a distant third in the contest for the right to move to Los Angeles. The bad news, off the field, is that Davis alone seems ill-equipped to maneuver the Raiders into a better stadium situation. The good news in terms of on-field prospects is that he’s given Reggie McKenzie some slack, and McKenzie has rewarded him with one of the NFL’s best young rosters.

60. Marshawn Lynch, Running Back, Seattle Seahawks (Preseason: 55)

Lynch’s black visor once served as the face of Seattle’s franchise. By the end of what might have been his final NFL season, Beast Mode was an afterthought as the new-look Seahawks, behind Russell Wilson and an explosive new spread attack, carried the Seattle into the postseason.

61. Brian Rolapp, Executive Vice President, Media, NFL (Preseason: 83)

The NFL’s experiment with the live-stream-only game (Buffalo vs. Jacksonville in London) was Rolapp’s baby.

62. Darrell Bevell, Offensive Coordinator, Seattle Seahawks (Preseason: 65)

Bevell received an excessive amount of heat after Super Bowl XLIX, the game-clinching interception overshadowing brilliant in-game adjustments. With seemingly everyone in the Pacific Northwest voicing displeasure with Bevell last offseason, and with the struggle to make the Jimmy Graham square-peg-round-hole fit work early last year, Bevell stepped up and once again proved why he’s one of the best offensive minds in football. He recalibrated and built Seattle’s offense into a spread attack that played to Russell Wilson’s growing strength as a pocket passer and established talent as an improvisational maestro. The result was an explosive offense that, when paired with Seattle’s excellent D, made the Seahawks one of the four or five legitimate Super Bowl contenders.

63. Jimmy Haslam, Owner, Cleveland Browns (Preseason: 75)

Haslam has owned the team for a little more than three years, and Hue Jackson will be his fourth head coach. But the owner’s boldest move came in last month’s appointments of Paul DePodesta, a former baseball exec and Moneyball guru, as “chief strategy officer,” and Sashi Brown, a salary-cap expert, as VP of football operations, positioning Cleveland as a team that will be strongly shaped by analytics and new organizational thinking. The Browns, duds again in 2015, will be the most intriguing experiment of 2016.  

64. Jason Robins, CEO, DraftKings (Preseason: unranked)

Last summer FanDuel CEO Nigel Eccles made this list. By the end of this season Robins had positioned himself as the face of a Daily Fantasy Sports industry that is on the rocks. The two companies took vastly different approaches as they came under fire. FanDuel tried to fly under the radar and weather the storm as questions popped up as to the legality of DFS. Robins put himself out front, at gaming conferences in Vegas, on ESPN’s Outside the Lines, bristling at the suggestion that the DFS industry needs regulation. His actions seemingly dumped gasoline on the fire. Most notably, New York state banned DFS, cutting off a huge portion of the customer base. In January, New York attorney general Eric Schneiderman announced he was amending his lawsuit to seek restitution for customers who lost money.

• THE NFL HAS A GAMBLING PROBLEM: With Daily Fantasy Sports industry—tied closely to the NFL—coming under heavy scrutiny from the government, it might be time for the NFL to rethink its conflicting stance on gambling.

65. Mike Zimmer, Head Coach, Minnesota Vikings (Preseason: unranked)

It took too long for someone to hire Zimmer as a head coach. Now he’s showing why he deserved the job. In his second season, he took the Vikings to an NFC North title, its first since 2009.

66. Darrelle Revis, Cornerback, New York Jets (Preseason: 20)

His return to New York was the boldest move the Jets made last offseason, stealing him away from a division rival and paying an enormous price. After watching Sammy Watkins torch him during a season-ending loss at Buffalo, it’s fair to ask: Was it a bad day on Revis Island, or was this the beginning of the end?

67. Josh McDaniels, Offensive Coordinator, New England Patriots (Preseason: unranked)

McDaniels was forced to work without a running game in 2015, with an increasingly shaky offensive line protecting Tom Brady and no Julian Edelman in the second half of the year. That the Patriots still almost returned to the Super Bowl is a testament to just how good the quarterback/play-caller connection is. Still, McDaniels didn’t get a sniff at a head-coaching job this offseason. You have to wonder if the specter of “Tim Tebow: Franchise Quarterback” has something to do with that.

68. Kevin Turner and Shawn Wooden, Retired Players (Preseason: 50)

The class representatives in the retired players settlement, Turner and Wooden have advocated to confirm the $1 billion settlement approved by Judge Anita Brody. With additional information on the affects of head trauma coming out regularly, a group of retired players continue to hold out for a better deal.

69. Tom Coughlin, Head Coach, New York Giants (Preseason: 77)

His players seemed to still want to play for him, and despite a severely undermanned defense, the Giants had every chance to come away as NFC East champions in 2015. But in the end it was a matter of too many game-management gaffes (especially early in the season). The Giants chose to move on from Coughlin, who will be 70 when the 2016 season kicks off and whose awkward departure was termed a resignation.

70. Jameis Winston, Quarterback, Tampa Bay Buccaneers (Preseason: 25)

Those expecting the worst from Winston, the No. 1 overall pick who entered the NFL loaded with baggage, didn’t get it from the rookie. He was solid on the field, looking like a future franchise QB. Off the field, aside from a painfully unfunny crab legs joke on draft night, his rookie year was thankfully uneventful.

71. Brock Osweiler, Quarterback, Denver Broncos (Preseason: unranked)

Last summer, before Tom Brady’s Deflategate suspension had been overturned, we ranked Jimmy Garoppolo 42nd on The MMQB 100. Garoppolo ended up being New England’s third-leading passer in 2015, just behind Danny Amendola. Turns out Osweiler was the one we should have ranked, as Peyton Manning’s injuries and ineffectiveness led to a surreal quarterback controversy in Denver. Ultimately, Osweiler’s late-regular-season struggles led to Manning’s reinstatement as the starter. Somewhere, though, in an alternate universe, it might have been Osweilier leading the Broncos’ offense during their playoff run.

72. Tony Romo, Quarterback, Dallas Cowboys (Preseason: 15)

As they finished off the hapless Eagles in Week 2, it looked like the Cowboys were going to run away with the NFC East. Then the 35-year-old Romo broke his left collarbone. After returning in late November, in a last-ditch effort to save the Cowboys’ season, Romo injured his left shoulder during a disastrous performance in a Thanksgiving Day loss to Carolina. Ultimately, Dallas went 3-1 in his starts, and 1-11 without him.

73. Jimmy Graham, Tight End, Seattle Seahawks (Preseason: 32)

He never found his footing in Seattle’s offense, often being asked to stay in and block before releasing late in plays (a function of the Seahawks’ poor offensive line performance). The Seahawks were ultimately better on offense after Graham suffered a season-ending knee injury in Week 12.

74. Howard Katz, Senior Vice President of Broadcasting (Preseason: 36)

Katz put together a winner of a schedule; Week 17 was loaded with drama thanks to playoff implications.

75. Rex Ryan, Head Coach, Buffalo Bills (Preseason: 22)

Ryan headed upstate with plenty of bluster. Ultimately, the Bills moved laterally from 2014 (when they went 9-7 under Doug Marrone, but in reality it was an 8-8 season considering the Bills visited a New England team resting its starters in Week 17). Ryan made the bold choice to go with longtime backup Tyrod Taylor as his quarterback; the jury is still out on that decision. Troublingly, several key players on defense (most notably Mario Williams) didn’t seem to buy into Rex’s system. The flashes were there, though, and Ryan’s season ended with a home win over the Jets, clinching a season sweep and knocking his former team out of the playoffs.

Michael B. Thomas/Getty Images

76. Todd Gurley, Running Back, St. Louis Rams (Preseason: 71)

He came into the season hyped as the best back to enter the NFL since Adrian Peterson. Once his ACL was fully healed, Gurley proved to be exactly that.

77. Bill O’Brien, Head Coach, Houston Texans (Preseason: 90)

Moments like this are why most coaches loathe being on Hard Knocks. On the program, O’Brien named Brian Hoyer his starting quarterback over Ryan Mallett, promising the veteran he would have a long leash. Then, in the middle of a Week 1 loss to the Chiefs, he changed his mind. Mallett was, predictably, a disaster, and O’Brien gave the job back to Hoyer after a 1-4 start. The coach admitted his mistake to the locker room, and the Texans turned things around with an 8-3 run to finish the season (with T.J. Yates and Brandon Weeden also starting games along the way), good enough to win the AFC South. Then Hoyer melted down in a humiliating wild-card loss to K.C., providing yet another stark reminder that O’Brien has to find a franchise quarterback if this team is ever going to contend with the AFC superpowers.

78. Richie Incognito, Guard, Buffalo Bills (Preseason: 97)

A 2014 season rife with domestic abuse scandals made Incognito’s 2013 locker-room bullying seem tame by comparison. The veteran guard quietly re-entered the league this year, stepping in as a starter for Rex Ryan. It was a risk for the Bills, and Incognito rewarded them with the best football of his life (Pro Bowl, and first-team All-Pro for Pro Football Focus).

79. DeMarcus Ware, Defensive End, Denver Broncos (Preseason: unranked)

Von Miller earned the headlines in Super Bowl 50, and he credited Ware (among others) with making him the player he is today. Ware also did plenty of damage of his own on Super Bowl Sunday. With a lot of Carolina’s help coming to his side of the field, the veteran regularly overwhelmed Panthers left tackle Michael Oher, picking up two sacks of his own.

80. Blair Walsh, Kicker, Minnesota Vikings (Preseason: unranked)

It was a stunning miss on a freezing day. After drilling kicks from 22, 43 and 47 yards in subzero temperatures, the reliable Walsh pulled a 27-yarder wide left in the final seconds of a 10-9 wild-card loss to Seattle. Walsh will have an offseason to think about the kick. But hopefully he moves past it and remembers the important things: that he is handsome, and puppies are cute.

• BLAIR WALSH: ‘IT’S NOT GOING TO RUIN MY LIFE’: The kicker is refusing to let it define his career. The perspective gained from a classroom of first-grader is helping, too.

81. Jim Tomsula, Head Coach, San Francisco 49ers (Preseason: 17)

A respected position coach, Tomsula claimed the throne vacated by Jim Harbaugh with a charming back story and a bizarre introductory press conference. There aren’t many coaches who could have won with a depleted roster in a stacked division, but after an impressive Monday night win to start the year, it was all downhill for Tomsula and the Niners.

82. Sam Bradford, Quarterback, Philadelphia Eagles (Preseason: 23)

It was yet another disappointing year for Bradford, as the former No. 1 overall pick has yet to play on a team with a winning record. However, there was something admirable about his performance in the face of a broken passing game bereft of weapons. He consistently stood in, waiting for his pedestrian receivers to create any separation, and took big hits while getting the ball out. Bradford wants franchise-QB money this offseason, and despite what the numbers say, he may have shown enough in 2015 to get it.

83. Ryan Grigson, General Manager, Indianapolis Colts (Preseason: 60)

The stunner of the offseason was that both Grigson and head coach Chuck Pagano were retained after a disastrous 2015. Grigson has been bold in building around Andrew Luck, most notably trading a 2014 first-rounder for Trent Richardson, spending a ’15 first-rounder on Phillip Dorsett despite a long-term deal for T.Y. Hilton and the acquisition of Andre Johnson, and largely ignoring a shaky offensive line and flawed defense along the way. It all came crashing down in 2015, as Luck couldn’t stay in the lineup and the Colts couldn’t keep pace with the Texans in the AFC South.

84. Mark Rodgers, Agent, Frontline Athlete Management (Preseason: 48)

There was a lot of hand-wringing concerning Russell Wilson’s contract situation last summer, much of it centered on Wilson’s “baseball agent.” But in the end Rodgers got Wilson signed to a deal worthy of a franchise QB.

85. Thomas Davis, Linebacker, Carolina Panthers (Preseason: unranked)

The 32-year-old Davis, veteran of three ACL tears, delivered an All-Pro regular season. After breaking his arm in the NFC title game, it looked like his season was over, but… well…

86. John Leonard, Professor of Mechanical and Ocean Engineering, M.I.T. (Preseason: unranked)

The go-to guy for everything related to deflated footballs and Ideal Gas Law (which the league apparently hadn’t heard of), Leonard debunked the Wells report and its shoddy science in a widely circulated classroom clip. Note to NFL: Maybe consult this guy before venturing any further into the realm of physics.

87. Patrick Peterson, Cornerback, Arizona Cardinals (Preseason: unranked)

Peterson changed his diet in light of a Type-2 diabetes diagnosis and delivered the best season of his career. Shadowing the likes of Calvin Johnson, Antonio Brown and A.J. Green, he was as good as any cornerback in football.

88. Philip Rivers, Quarterback, San Diego Chargers (Preseason: 18)

It was a trying year in San Diego, with potential relocation hanging over the franchise and a roster decimated by injury. That Rivers was able to throw for an AFC-best 4,792 yards is a reminder of just how special he is as a quarterback.

89. Todd Bowles, Head Coach, New York Jets (Preseason: 40)

The even-keeled Bowles stood in stark contrast to Rex Ryan, and the Jets’ rebuilt defense was as good as advertised. He even delivered a win over the Patriots. Still, a Week 17 loss in Buffalo, costing the Jets a playoff spot, was a bitter pill to swallow at the end of Bowles’ first season.

90. Mike Carey, Rules Analyst, CBS (Preseason: unranked)

He continues to come under fire for his low “hit rate” in comparison to Fox’s Mike Pereira. That Carey, an NFL official for 24 years, missed the only call he was consulted on during the Super Bowl 50 broadcast seemed cruelly fitting. Carey’s struggles in the booth personify the NFL’s officiating mess.

• MIKE CAREY HAS A TOUGH JOB: A Q&A with CBS officiating expert after a rough first two seasons on the job.

91. Jeff Pash, Executive Vice President & General Counsel, NFL (Preseason: 62)

Pash, the NFL’s No. 2, “edited” Ted Wells’ report, a fact that Judge Richard Berman seized on when deciding that the league’s investigation was not truly independent.

92. Dirk Koetter, Offensive Coordinator, Tampa Bay Buccaneers (Preseason: 73)

He has Jameis Winston on the right track, so much so that the Bucs were willing to move on from Lovie Smith and promote Koetter to head coach rather than risk losing Winston’s mentor.

93. Mike Maccagnan, General Manager, New York Jets (Preseason: unranked)

The first-year GM made some of the offseason’s riskiest moves—Darrelle Revis, Brandon Marshall, Ryan Fitzpatrick—and for the most part they clicked.

David Madison/Getty Images

94. Jared Goff, Quarterback, University of California–Berkeley (Preseason: unranked)

We placed Michigan State’s Connor Cook, the draft’s projected top senior quarterback, at No. 76 last summer. But Goff and North Dakota State’s Carson Wentz have emerged as the clear frontrunners to be the first quarterback off the board this spring.

• JARED GOFF PROJECTS TO STARDOM: Last fall, our film-study expert watched the Cal QB for the first time. He liked what he saw.

95. Ndamukong Suh, Defensive Tackle, Miami Dolphins (Preseason: 21)

The biggest free-agent signing, Suh was accused of freelancing too often early last season. But really, he was battling constant double teams and delivered pretty much exactly the kind of performance the Dolphins likely expected. Miami had plenty of problems last year, but Suh wasn’t one of them.

96. Colin Kaepernick, Quarterback, San Francisco 49ers (Preseason: 72)

The Cardinals laughed at the simplicity of the 49ers’ offense after a 47-7 thrashing that included four Kaepernick INTs. By midseason he was holding a clipboard behind Blaine Gabbert. Three years ago Kaepernick had the 49ers five yards short of a Super Bowl win; now it looks as though the team is ready to turn the page.

97. Chris Borland, Retired Linebacker (Preseason: 24)

His was the most shocking of last offseason’s surprise retirements, and many wondered if Borland would inspire a trend of talented young players walking away from the game for the sake of self-preservation. It’s too early to say it won’t happen, but it didn’t this year.

98. Marcus Mariota, Quarterback, Tennessee Titans (Preseason: 93)

Mariota was better than expected operating a pro-style offense, even with the midseason firing of head coach Ken Whisenhunt.

99. Anquan Boldin, Wide Receiver, San Francisco 49ers (Preseason: unranked)

On the field he had his 1,000th career catch during a lost season for the 49ers. Off the field his Anquan Boldin Q81 Foundation—serving underprivileged children through summer enrichment programs, food drives, holiday shopping sprees and scholarships—earned him Walter Payton Man of the Year honors.

100. Robert Griffin III, Quarterback, Washington (Preseason: 28)

The RG3 era came to an abrupt end, as Washington exercised its contract option and proceeded to demote him to third on the depth chart. To Griffin’s credit, he never became a distraction during the team’s run to the NFC East title.

• THE FINAL NOTE ON RG3: Silent after being demoted to the bench, Robert Griffin III left Washington a farewell message without saying a thing. It was a strange ending befitting the odd tenure for the ex-franchise QB.

Just Missed The Cut: Larry Fitzgerald, Wide Receiver, Arizona Cardinals; Cris Collinsworth, Analyst, Sunday Night Football; Adam Gase, Offensive Coordinator, Chicago Bears; Kawann Short, Defensive Tackle, Carolina Panthers; Stephen Gostkowski, Kicker, New England Patriots; Geno Atkins, Defensive Tackle, Cincinnati Bengals; Jay Cutler, Quarterback, Chicago Bears; Dan Quinn, Head Coach, Atlanta Falcons; Eli Manning, Quarterback, New York Giants; Richard Sherman, Cornerback, Seattle Seahawks; Doug Martin, Running Back, Tampa Bay Buccaneers.

Who would you have put on the list? Let us know at

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