"This is really hard," longtime NFL personnel man Mike Lombardi said one day in June, staring at my original list of the top players in the NFL, ranked 1 through 500. He shook his head. He rubbed his forehead. He chuckled. "This is impossible."
"You should have heard my first idea," I told Lombardi, who's now with the Broncos. "I wanted to rank every player in the league, 1 through 1,696. I was even looking into the long snappers. But people wisely talked me out of it."
Lombardi looked at me as if I had two heads, or maybe none. Ranking the top 500 is an insane task, one during which I woke up thinking (and I'm dead serious), Am I nuts to rank Maurice Jones-Drew ahead of Brian Westbrook and Joseph Addai? Is there any way the best cornerback in football is better than Carson Palmer? Adam Vinatieri -- 144th? Ahead of 14 starting quarterbacks? What the heck do I do with Pacman Jones, that knucklehead? Is he 49th, or 449th, or 14,449th?
Plus, a lot of colleagues whose opinions I respect told me I'd make more enemies than friends with this exercise. I could just hear my next call to Rodney Harrison, the Patriots safety -- or, rather, his call to me: "Two hundred and thirty-sixth?! Behind Leigh Bodden, Michael Roos, Jahri Evans? I never heard of Jahri Evans! "
Settle down, settle down. Give me a minute or two to explain why I did this and how I did this. And to defend the list.
The genesis of the idea came when I saw a player the same size as Bears return demon Devin Hester -- 5' 11", about 180 -- skyrocket up the draft charts in April. I'm talking about Ohio State wide receiver--return man Ted Ginn Jr., and though there were questions about his durability, he was as fast as Hester and had similar quick-strike capability. Hester was the 57th pick in the draft in 2006; Ginn went ninth this year, to a Dolphins team with big needs at quarterback, offensive line, cornerback and pass rusher. "We've got a great defense, and we're going to be in a lot of close games in the fourth quarter," Miami coach Cam Cameron said. "What if Ted can make six or seven plays like Devin Hester made last year? How many games could he change?"
So I thought I might make a list, the best of the best. The criteria: importance of the position (I had quarterback, left tackle, pass rusher and cornerback at the top, but with room for the explosive player), talent level and age -- with a nod to young players on the cusp of a breakout season (I rank opportunistic Jets safety Kerry Rhodes 29th) and to team-oriented guys (selfless Javon Walker 80, selfish Terrell Owens 103). Though part-time players, four impact return men (in order, Hester, Jones-Drew, Pacman, Wes Welker) were placed among the top 126. The best special teams player last year (outside of return men and kickers), Chiefs safety Bernard Pollard, landed at 320. Keeping in mind what Bill Parcells said in his most recent incarnation as an NFL coach -- "It's incredible what a field-position game this has become" -- I made room on the list for six kickers and six punters.
Then, as I toured training camps this summer, I showed the list to G.M.'s and personnel men (six), coaches (four) and players (three). I asked each of them to list the most important positions, in order. Interestingly, Kansas City vice president Bill Kuharich was the only one to say he'd favor a franchise left tackle or pass rusher over a quarterback, unless that passer was Peyton Manning, or close to it. And Jets coach Eric Mangini picked quarterback, interior defensive lineman, left tackle, running back. "The game has changed," he said. "A disruptive tackle up the middle can collapse the pocket oftentimes quicker than the rusher coming around the edge."
As I crisscrossed America, getting input from those NFL sources, I kept reworking the list. Kuharich, for example, wanted me to move Seahawks tackle Walter Jones from 10 into the top five, thought I had Donovan McNabb way too low at 91 and felt I was too enamored of Drew Brees at 8. "But it's your list," he said. "The great thing about it is, it's not wrong." (I kept Jones at 10 and Brees at 8, but I moved McNabb up to 72 because a cacophony of voices told me he was too low.) I decided I wouldn't make a significant change unless at least two people whose judgment I trusted could make persuasive arguments. Most told me I was loony to have Rhodes ranked in the 20s and Bills tackle Jason Peters in the 30s. I believe Rhodes comes closest to Ed Reed (12), the best impact safety in the game, and I believe Peters, a converted tight end, will be an All-Pro within two years. So I wouldn't move them down even if Bill Belichick called and said, "Neither of those guys could make my team."
But I was swayed by the masses to make a few major shifts. Up: Bears defensive tackle Tommie Harris (to 25), Browns linebacker Kamerion Wimbley (to 81), Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger (to 85). Down: oft-injured Colts safety Bob Sanders (to 196) and quarterback Michael Vick, who may next play football in 2010 (to 214).
Conclusions? I've got a few.
This is not a quarterback-rich league right now. Two thirds of the 32 teams aren't sure who their QB of the future is. Eighteen teams will start a passer who is in his first or second year in the lineup. The quality at the position -- consistent passers who've shown enough all-star ability to be considered franchise quarterbacks -- is frightfully low. Five years ago I'd have put 20 quarterbacks in the top 100. This year I have 12, and it was a stretch for Jay Cutler at 91 and Matt Leinart at 99, neither of whom has proved anything beyond being bright prospects. Is Matt Schaub the next Dan Pastorini or the next Cody Carlson? (Funny, though, how the final list is bookended by passers: Manning at 1 and Chris Simms at 500.)
I tried to mirror the rising importance of specialists in recent years. In the four drafts from 1995 through '98, NFL teams picked a total of three kickers and four punters. In the nine drafts since then, 23 kickers and 21 punters were selected.
Argument starters? I've got those, too.
Brees (8) is better than Carson Palmer (9)? I didn't get much agreement on that. "Palmer's better," Rhodes says. "He can make every throw." As can Brees, whom I also consider a better leader and more productive. Last year in New Orleans, with a less-talented receiver corps (by far) than he had in San Diego, Brees was more accurate, threw for more yards and had a higher yards-per-attempt average than Palmer -- and lifted what had been an awful team into the NFC Championship Game.
The Ravens, who were only 19-14 with no playoff wins over the last two years, have eight players in the top 100 (tied with the Chargers for most), including the virtually unknown Kelly Gregg at 83. The Patriots have six, the Colts five and the Seahawks four. The reason for all the Ravens: the vastly talented and well-schemed defense, built through G.M. Ozzie Newsome's drafts. Even with Adalius Thomas gone to New England, seven of the top 88 players on the list are Ravens defenders. Gregg at defensive tackle, for instance, consistently draws two blockers and is one of best pocket crashers in the game. If only they could pick wideouts the way they pick linebackers.
Calvin Johnson, without playing a pro game, is ranked higher (63) than two Super Bowl MVP wide receivers, Hines Ward (94) and Deion Branch (245). Before he was taken second in the draft, Johnson was considered by veteran scouts to be one of the best college receivers of all time. The bet here is that the bombs-away Mike Martz offense will maximize the talents of a 6' 5" receiver who runs like Bob Hayes.
Hester (69) is electric, certainly, but should he be ranked higher than McNabb (72), Roethlisberger (85) and Brett Favre (113)? I'd argue that Hester, in his 326 snaps (he was Chicago's fourth corner in addition to his return duties), had more impact last year than McNabb did in the 10 games he played before getting hurt and that the Bears return man was a bigger headache to would-be tacklers than Roethlisberger was to defenses. Favre, 37, gets dinged because he'll play only a year or two more, max.
Why include Pacman (110), Vick (214) and Tank Johnson (300), those paragons of virtue? Simple. They are still very good football players; all (likely) will play again -- and make a difference again. Being an altar boy was never part of the criteria. In the case of Vick, he wouldn't have been in the top 100 even with a squeaky-clean résumé because he still isn't the complete quarterback that defines NFL greatness at the position. Now, he may not play football again until he's 30 years old, and if that turns out to be the case, a ranking of 214 might be generous. He's on the list because he'll have the chance to play again, someday, and his skills won't fully erode in the meantime.
Rodney Harrison is on the phone. He is not pleased. "Two hundred thirty-sixth, huh?" he says. "That is ridiculous. There is no way I'm the 236th-best player in football. But this won't be the last mistake you've ever made, I can guarantee you that."
At this point his voice slips into a slow seethe. "But I appreciate your call, I really do," he says. "This is the motivation I need to step up my game a little more and have a great season. So thank you." You're welcome.