- J.J. Watt isn’t just the best defensive player in the NFL, he’s the best player in the game, full stop. So says our ranking of the NFL’s top 100 players ahead of the 2016 season.
Before the 2016 NFL season kicks off, SI set out to lend some order to the lists of the league’s elite players, taking stock of every team in the league and every position on the field. The result: Our staff’s ranking of the top 100 players entering this fall, a mix of nuanced analysis and controlled chaos, filled with tough omissions and intriguing debate-starters.
A few notes about the 2016 rankings:
• J.J. Watt, who will be vying for his fourth Defensive Player of the Year award and fifth consecutive first-team All-Pro selection this season, is in danger of missing the first regular season action of his six-year career when the Texans open their season on Sept. 11 against the Bears. His recovery timetable after undergoing mid-July surgery to repair a herniated disc is still murky on the eve of the preseason’s first week. But that didn’t keep his record of dominance from cementing his place at the top of our list.
• The Seahawks lead the league with eight players in this year’s top 100: Earl Thomas, Richard Sherman, Bobby Wagner, Kam Chancellor, Russell Wilson, Michael Bennett, Doug Baldwin and K.J. Wright. The Panthers are right behind them with seven players on the list, followed by the Cardinals, Cowboys and Patriots, who all have six.
• At the other end of the spectrum? The Browns (Joe Thomas), Chargers (Philip Rivers), Titans (Jurell Casey), Jaguars (Allen Robinson) and Lions (Ziggy Ansah) all landed just one player in the top 100.
• The rankings were finalized by NFL writer Chris Burke, who was primarily working off SI’s position-by-position rankings, published earlier this summer. Those rankings were written by Burke, Don Banks, Greg Bedard, Melissa Jacobs, Jacob Feldman, Eric Single and (former SI employee) Doug Farrar.
Without further ado, let the countdown begin.
Campbell has been so good for so long, it’s easy to take him for granted, but he had another excellent season in 2015, playing a lot of one-gap tackle in Cardinals defensive coordinator James Bettcher’s aggressive fronts. Campbell can line up with equal effectiveness right over center, as a one-gap nose tackle, or as a three-tech tackle or five-tech end. While he may not have the raw speed he once did, he’s great at understanding gaps and knowing when to shoot through and when to use his power. With Chandler Jones now on board as the edge rusher the Cardinals have needed for some time, Campbell should be able to make even more of an interior impact in 2016.
His run defense certainly leaves something to be desired, but there’s little doubt that Ansah is a dominant edge player after finishing third in the league in 2015 with 14.5 sacks. He had very little in the way of a supporting cast in the front seven after Ndamukong Suh left in free agency and DeAndre Levy suffered a season-ending injury, and Ansah still had a career year. He’s also still learning the game, so the talk among Lions coaches that Ansah could approach 20 sacks this season is not out of the question. Personally, we’d rather see him improve against the run.
Oakland paid Osemele like a tackle (five years and $60 million), but he likely will slot in as a starting guard on the left side, flanked by tackle Donald Penn and consistently underrated center Rodney Hudson. The Raiders did not seem to mind overpaying a bit for Osemele as an interior lineman because another team might have swooped in on him as a tackle after he finished last season playing outside for Baltimore. He also played tackle as a rookie in 2012, but it was when the Ravens slid him inside (with Bryant McKinnie at LT and Michael Oher moving to RT) just ahead of their Super Bowl run that he and the offensive line really settled in. Osemele is a bully in the run game, hence his success lining up closer to the ball. The Raiders figure to give him every chance to take advantage of his massive size (6' 5", 333 lbs.) and power to drive opponents back along the interior.
Late in the 2014 season, the Seahawks handed Wright, who was 25 at the time, a four-year contract extension. The 2011 draft gem (round 4, pick No. 99) has only gotten better since then. There is without question a case to be made that Wright is just as integral to his team’s linebacking corps as is the oft-hyped Bobby Wagner. Wright played 97.4% of Seattle’s defensive snaps last year, per Football Outsiders, behind only Earl Thomas (98.3%) and Richard Sherman (98.0%). Wagner is a more explosive, athletic defender overall, but Wright is equally comfortable against the run and pass, and he is arguably a step ahead of Wagner defending the latter. The Seahawks have Wright under contract through 2018. That extension is already paying off.
When McPhee bolted the linebacker-friendly confines of Baltimore for the Bears last year in free agency, he moved out of the shadow of Ravens teammates Terrell Suggs and Elvis Dumervil. After a tremendous all-around season at outside linebacker in Chicago, McPhee should no longer be a secret. Between snuffing out the run (his forte) and chasing down quarterbacks (Pro Football Focus had McPhee as the game’s best pass rusher on a per-snap basis in 2015, with 45 total pressures in 205 snaps), McPhee has a strong case as last off-season’s best free-agent signing.
Staley is the Old Faithful of offensive linemen. He’s no longer completely dominant thanks to the eroding talent around him, but you’d be hard pressed to find many others that are as consistent as the mammoth left tackle. Pass rushers find it a big pain to get around the 6' 5" Staley once he extends his long arms, and blockers don’t like to take him on in the run game because he plays with great pad level.
At 36, Romo’s glory days (2007-2013) are likely behind him. He is three years removed from topping 4,000, largely due to the litany of injuries he has suffered in recent years, including fractures in his back and a broken collarbone. Luckily for Romo the lower half of his body has remained relatively unscathed, a blessing given his emphasis on keeping plays alive…forever. A healthy Romo behind the NFL’s best offensive line, continues to be a potential nightmare for opponents.
The No. 4 pick in the 2015 draft wasted little time last season showing why the Raiders have such lofty hopes for he and Derek Carr together. Cooper topped 100 yards receiving in three of his first six games while Oakland emerged as a surprise wild-card contender. Neither Cooper nor his team could keep the momentum rolling into December and January, but the upside is obvious. Cooper finished with 1,070 yards and nine TDs last season, and that should be his floor moving forward.
A smart and feisty technician, Whitworth has long been one of the best linemen in the league whether he’s playing tackle or guard. He’s very long, which causes problems for defenders, but what separates Whitworth from many others is his mind. His study skills are off the charts, which allows him to know what’s coming and he’s a conditioning freak. Just like the rest of the Bengals, he has struggled a bit in the biggest games, and that limits how high he ranks on this list.
It’s easy to watch Trufant work and see the next cornerback in line to become very famous—and very rich—as a result of Dan Quinn’s influence, who saw immediate results on defense in his first year as the Falcons’ head coach. Like Quinn’s former secondary pupils in Seattle, Trufant is handsy and relentless on his marks, with the timing that separates steady playmakers from flag magnets. He has started every game since the Falcons made him the No. 22 pick in the 2013 draft and has held his opponents’ completion percentage below 60% in each season. The Falcons picked up his option for 2016, giving him one more year to make a statement before his earnings start more closely matching his play.
The 2013 and ’14 seasons were utter disappointments for Martin, but last year, he again resembled the back that shined for the Buccaneers as a rookie. Bolstered by Jameis Winston’s arrival and improved O-line play, Martin averaged 4.9 yards per carry in 2015—better than every running back but Thomas Rawls and Ryan Mathews, neither of whom was a full-time starter. Martin chipped in 33 catches for 271 yards, as well. Despite his small stature, the 5’ 9”, 223-pounder is a load to bring down, and when he is going well, he can power through arm tackles just as effectively as he can spot a lane and turn the corner. Martin is a hard-nosed runner who should be able to maintain his current pace more effectively than he did after his rookie year.
Debate amongst yourselves, Packers fans, which of your two guards belongs in the top 100. Maybe the answer is both. Sitton entered 2015 with an edge on longtime partner in crime T.J. Lang, but it was Lang who was the steadier player throughout last season as both he and Sitton battled lingering injuries. Sitton still managed to play all but eight of his team’s offensive snaps last year, even kicking out to offensive tackle when injuries ravaged Green Bay late in the regular season. (That move, as it turned out, was an awful misstep by the coaching staff.) Still, when he is 100% healthy, Sitton is an All-Pro-level force. He reminded everyone of that in the postseason, saving his best for last in a win over Washington and an excellent outing against a very good Arizona front.
There have been few defenders the Dolphins would have deemed irreplaceable over the last couple seasons. Jones is right in that mix, alongside Cameron Wake and now Ndamukong Suh. Coming off his first Pro Bowl nod, Jones briefly held out this off-season, despite having two years left on a $30 million contract. He picked off five passes and racked up a whopping 135 tackles last season, easily tops on the team. He was all over the place last season, a defender whose presence was impossible to ignore as he flew around after the football.
Casey has been one of the more overlooked interior defenders over the last couple of years. His early fans may have worried when the Titans decided to switch to a gap-diverse system with more 3–4 looks last season. After all, the general assumption is that tackles who stand 6' 1" and weigh around 300 pounds aren’t tall enough to get the right kind of leverage at the end position, nor are they heavy enough to beat blockers at the point of attack as nose tackles. But Casey was able to dispel these concerns, showing his versatility at multiple positions more than ever last season. He played his usual pass-rushing tackle position very well, but he also showed a real knack for getting pressure as a stand-up rusher. Casey’s most dominant trait is probably his lateral agility—he can zip across multiple gaps in a hurry, making him a stellar stunt defender. Casey made the Pro Bowl for the first time in 2015, but it’s time for more people to know his name and understand how great he really is.
If they want to, the Raiders could send a pair of 6’ 3” giants out to the boundaries in Week 1 between successful reclamation project David Amerson and Smith, the crazy-long free agency acquisition who will be expected to set the tone in a new-look Oakland secondary. The Chiefs’ stout front seven helped raise Smith’s profile, and the Raiders’ other off-season moves put them in position to replicate that sort of pressure and allow Smith to leave QBs even tighter windows.
Kalil has been with the Panthers since 2007, which means he's been through both the dog days of the Jimmy Clausen era and the current days with Cam Newton and the most diverse power-based system in the league. Kalil isn't your traditional power-blocker at 6' 3" and 399 pounds, but he understands how to use leverage extremely well, and he blocks at the second level as well as anyone in the league. Moreover, he's in charge of the line calls for a very diverse run game, and a passing game that's getting better every year. Kalil should always be on the list of players whose football acumen has allowed them to transcend their perceived physical limitations.
Hightower's value to the Patriots was proven during his time on and off the field last season. In the 12 games he started and finished, New England was 10–2. In the other six, it was 3–3. That discrepancy was particularly evident in the Pats' Week 12 loss to the Broncos. Before Hightower sprained his left knee late in the first half, Denver rushed for just 43 yards and no scores, but after he exited, it ran for 136 yards and three TDs. Overall, opponents gained .85 more yards on each carry when he was not on the field. Pro Football Focus ranked Hightower seventh among all linebackers and had him as their top pass-rusher at the position by the end of the regular season as he mastered the A-gap pressure to the tune of four sacks, two hits and 18 hurries on just 116 rushes. The 26-year-old is not your standard middle linebacker, but he's shown the smarts and aggressiveness necessary to excel inside as well as out.
The 10-year NFL veteran has topped 1,000 yards in eight of his seasons thus far, missing out only during an injury-plagued 2014 and his rookie season of 2006. Another big-bodied headache out wide, Marshall (6' 4", 229 lbs.) brings a swagger common to many of the receivers populating our list. He never was more productive than in 2015, when he hung 1,502 yards and 14 touchdowns on the board. As is becoming more and more common with typically outside WRs, Marshall also can thrive from the slot. He and Eric Decker share that trait.
Classifying Rivers as an elite quarterback is a case that’s getting tougher to make all the time. He’ll roll up some pretty decent statistics every season, and no one in the game burns with as much on-field intensity as Rivers, but he has ended the past two seasons on a downswing and his days of being the difference between the Chargers winning and losing seem long gone. Playing in San Diego, given the losing and the relocation issue, is no easy feat, but Rivers hasn’t been able to rise above it and sustain his performance at a high level. At 34, he’s still young enough to surprise us and put together a monster season, lifting the Chargers back into playoff contention. But it’s also entirely possible that we’ve already seen his best work.
Armstead, a third-round pick in ’13, came almost out of nowhere and now the 25-year-old is in the conversation as one of the best young linemen in the game (along with our next pick on this list.) According to PFF, Armstead only allowed 20 pressures last season and his emergence is the biggest reason why Drew Brees’s decline was greatly exaggerated. As soon as his protection was better, boom, Brees was throwing darts again last season. Armstead and his rare athletic ability in the run and pass game should receive a lot of credit.
Because he’s now on his third team in three seasons, there may be a perception that Mathis has slipped into veteran journeyman territory. Forget it. A messy contract situation pushed him out the door in Philadelphia, despite a Pro Bowl showing in 2013 and a forceful close to ’14 after he returned from a knee injury. The Eagles’ loss was the Broncos’ gain—Mathis stepped into Gary Kubiak’s system last season and again showed why he is a top option. He excelled as a run blocker in Denver despite a nagging ankle injury that eventually required surgery after Super Bowl. His pass protection sagged some, with three sacks and 19 hurries credited to him, although all of Denver’s O-line numbers were hindered by the QB play in ‘15. That said, it’s more of his growing list of injuries and age (he’ll be 35 in November) that prevented him from being even higher on this list. Thanks to Mathis and incumbent starting guard Mike Iupati, the Cardinals should be able to control the ground game.
If you want a good example of why Joseph is such a major factor in the Vikings’ defense, watch his performance against the Rams in Week 9 of last season. Not only was he a constant thorn in Todd Gurley’s side, he also proved his speed when he crossed half the field to take the speedy Tavon Austin down on an off-tackle run. The only thing that’s keeping Joseph from being ranked higher is the fact that he missed four games with turf toe, but his dominance when healthy is something to see. Joseph isn’t a sack artist, per se—he has just 12.5 in his six seasons—but he brings a lot of pressure with his strength and quickness. Moreover, he’s one of the league’s best run defenders, and when Mike Zimmer sets him up angled towards the center in a Stunt 4–3 look, he’s just about guaranteed to blow through protection and create tackles for loss. Joseph is a rising name on what might be the NFL’s next great defense.
The striking thing about Burnett is not how good he has been but rather how much better of an all-around player he has become of late. A full-time starter for the Packers since 2011, Burnett has become an unquestioned leader of that defense and, by increasing his presence against the pass, has stepped up as a top safety in the NFL. Green Bay no longer has to worry about him in coverage, and he’s far from a concern against the run: He registered 130 tackles over 15 games in ‘14 and another 68 across 11 games last year. Keeping him on the field for a full season should be a goal, as Burnett has not hit 16 games played since the ’13 campaign. He and Clinton-Dix have quietly grown into a standout safety duo.
The one-two punch of Luke Kuechly and Davis has been transcendent for the Panthers. Add in emerging young linebacker Shaq Thompson and an at-times dominant defensive front and ... well, you’ve got yourself the NFC champs. At 33 years old and with 11 NFL years under his belt, Davis is coming off of what may have been his best season yet. If nothing else, he finally received some well-earned recognition, garnering his first Pro Bowl and All-Pro nods (plus the PFWA’s Good Guy Award. Oh, and he played in the Super Bowl with a broken arm.) That he has maintained this level of play is nothing short of remarkable. Remember, Davis’s career was very much in jeopardy after he tore his ACL in 2009, ’10 and ’11. Yet, here we are in 2016, where Davis remains an outstanding coverage linebacker and a consistent 100-tackle-per-year force.
In his prime, Fitzgerald was the most feared receiver in the league, with a rare combination of quickness, downfield speed, toughness and intelligence. He enjoyed a renaissance season in 2015 with 109 catches for 1,215 yards and nine touchdowns, in part because over the last few seasons he has developed into a great escape hatch for quarterbacks in the Cardinals’ offense as a slot receiver. Last season, he caught 52 of 64 targets from the slot for 606 yards and three touchdowns. When coach Bruce Arians calls vertical routes to one side and timing routes to the other—a common construct for the Cardinals—Fitzgerald will often be asked to run a slant or drag route over the middle to give his quarterback yet another option. His 75-yard catch and run in overtime against the Packers in the divisional round of the playoffs, perhaps the greatest play of his career, came after he motioned from outside to the slot, ran a crossing route and slipped past three Green Bay defenders on the run. It is this versatility and determination that has allowed Fitzgerald to excel in the slot just as he always has outside.
The reality of how high Brees has set the bar for himself: He led the NFL with 4,870 passing yards last season (in only 15 starts), throwing 32 touchdown passes with a 101.0 passer rating, and still elicited questions of whether his game might be in decline. Some slippage. Brees remains deadly accurate on deep balls, short passes and everything in between, and his knowledge of how to attack a defense is almost unparalleled. If the Saints’ retooled receiving corps is as good as advertised, Brees at 37 will again be one of the league’s most prolific passers, capable of putting his team on his shoulders and winning any game he starts.
The Ravens, a team dying to find an impact safety presence ever since Ed Reed left following the 2012 season, are about to find out just how valuable Weddle can be. The version of Weddle that wrapped his nine-year run in San Diego was not the same player last season that he had been in the eight prior, with injuries and inefficiency around him hurting the cause. However, even during a bit of a down campaign in which he went without an interception, Weddle again showed off his elite coverage skills. Pro Football Focus graded him No. 2 against the pass among safeties, trailing only the now-retired Charles Woodson. Weddle also can be a sneaky presence as a pass rusher, getting into the backfield when asked to blitz.
He hasn’t received the same level of publicity the past two seasons as the Saints bottomed out on defense, but Jordan has continued to be a standout player despite being moved all over the field. Jordan is the rare big-bodied defender who combines quick-twitch athleticism with a non-stop motor. Pro Football Focus counted 70 total quarterback pressures for Jordan last season. That’s a ton, especially for someone who gets a lot of attention. The Saints brought in more talent on defense this off-season to help Jordan be even better this year.
Over the last few years, Edelman has replaced Wes Welker as the best option route runner in the NFL, making him a perfect fit on the Patriots, who have more option routes in their playbook than any other team. No receiver is better at reading coverage and adjusting his routes based on opponent tendencies, a mandatory skill for earning trust with Tom Brady in the New England offense. Edelman is tough, he’s quick and he understands how to sneak in and out of various coverage concepts. Perhaps it’s his appearance, but people tend to think of Edelman as more of a slot receiver than he really is: He ran just 51.2% of his routes in the slot last season, catching 32 passes on 42 targets for 362 yards and five touchdowns. At this point, he’s a true multi-position receiver who can get things done from anywhere on the field within the Patriots’ unique offense.
Nick Foles finding a magic potion that briefly turned him into Joe Montana was a prevailing storyline from Philadelphia’s 2013 division title. McCoy, though, was nothing short of brilliant. Thriving within Chip Kelly’s offense (ironically, in hindsight, since Kelly later replaced him with DeMarco Murray), McCoy carved up defenses to the tune of 1,600 yards and a rushing title. He has not matched that output before or since, but even last season’s injury-hindered 895-yard rushing total could not completely mask that McCoy remains a threat. His one-cut running style will cost him yardage in the backfield at times, but he engages the afterburners in a hurry when he finds a crease. His jukes and jump cuts have left defender after defender flailing at air.
Olsen comes off a banner year with 1,104 yards and seven touchdowns, which makes sense given that he was Cam Newton’s only reliable target. His skills as a receiver are dynamic—he’s an imposing 6' 5" force that often requires double coverage. While Olsen is deficient as a run blocker, he has proven enough as an offensive threat that almost every team would love a tight end after the same mold. There’s a reason the Bears openly admit that trading Olsen away in 2011 was a big mistake.
If it weren’t his size (5’ 10”, 200 lbs.) and value in pass coverage, Ward probably could take on a full-time transition to linebacker. He is incredibly productive vs. the run, plus brings an ability to get after the passer. Just ask Minnesota quarterback Teddy Bridgewater—he was under fire from Ward throughout their Week 4 meeting last year, a performance which earned Ward (two sacks, forced fumble, QB hurry) AFC Defensive Player of the Week honors.
The issue for Lee never has been what he could do on the field, but rather if he could stay there. Injuries repeatedly have disrupted Lee’s career—he missed 10 games in 2012 (toe), five in ’13 (hamstring/neck), all of ’14 (knee) and battled through multiple concussions and another hamstring issue last season. But he is such a dynamic defensive weapon when available. The Cowboys’ decision to move him from the middle to the weak side last season, in part to accommodate Ronaldo McClain, paid off in the form of a career-high 128 tackles. More than that (given how flawed the tackles statistic is), playing Lee outside helped keep him free to play a chase-and-tackle role as opposed to having to knock heads in the trenches. His coverage skills remained at an elite level, too.
Cobb was forced more outside in 2015 as a result of the torn ACL that cost Jordy Nelson his entire 2015 season. He showed impressive aplomb, but the Packers are in their best shape when Cobb can manipulate coverage over the middle and down the seams as a speed slot weapon with an ever-increasing route awareness. Cobb's speed is his primary skill—he can foot-fake a cornerback into stopping at the first coverage point, and then blow right by him in embarrassing fashion. Even with a depleted receiver corps and some really questionable offensive playcalling last season, Cobb still caught 66 passes from the slot on 109 targets for 704 yards and six touchdowns. Not quite the transcendent slot season he had in 2014, but quite respectable under the circumstances. With Nelson back as his outside foil (and perhaps a few more route concepts stuck in Mike McCarthy's playbook), Cobb could be even better in 2016, especially if he gets over the focus drops that plagued him at times in 2015.
The Colts have made it easy for offenses to avoid Davis for stretches in recent years, but he is a ruthless, physical playmaker when tested. His touchdown-free 2014 was a well-deserved pelt for the mantle, even if he came back to Earth last year, and the addition of Patrick Robinson, who is coming off a strong season in San Diego, should provide some support as Davis continues to take on the top assignments.
Bowman missed the 2014 season after a gruesome ACL tear in the NFC Championship against the Seahawks. But he returned in 2015 to start 16 games despite health concerns—a rare bright spot on a defense that ranked 29th in the league in yards allowed. He finished second in the NFL with 19 pressures and also garnered the second-most All-Pro votes, and has played 16 games in every season except for '14. His pass coverage suffered upon his return, but expect him to improve there with more time to rebuild the explosiveness that the injury sapped. And this time he'll have the help of Chip Kelly's new age training staff. Bowman made a statement by showing up for the first day of the team's voluntary conditioning program, and at 28 years old, he still has multiple prime years ahead of him. His style might not perfectly fit the modern style of play, but there are few linebackers you'd rather have on running downs.
Pro Football Focus’s top-rated pass-blocking guard last season, Martin also just so happens to be a linchpin among a brilliant run game. Heck, Darren McFadden reached the 1,000-yard plateau last season despite Matt Cassel, Kellen Moore and Brandon Weeden combining to start 12 games. Martin is another product of a 2014 draft that has rapidly emerged as a draft of historical proportions when it comes to the guard position. The Cowboys snatched him off the board at No. 14 overall, then plugged him into their starting lineup immediately. Were he not locked into a guard spot, he probably could take over as a tackle (where he played at Notre Dame) or even at center. He is that athletically versatile and, more importantly, that intelligent of a blocker. The Cowboys had no hesitation plugging him into their zone-blocking scheme, nor do they have to worry about him keeping Tony Romo & Co. clean.
When healthy, Reed has impressed during his first two seasons, especially given Washington’s, um, interesting quarterback situation at the time. Reed broke out last year with 87 receptions and 952 receiving yards in just 14 games played. He can toggle between wideout and traditional tight end roles; according to Pro Football Focus, his 2.45 yards per route run were the best for all tight ends in 2015. Reed is the best receiver on the Redskins and would be a production machine in virtually any scheme—all he has to do is stay healthy.
Go figure when it comes to Palmer. He followed one of the best regular seasons in recent NFL quarterbacking history with perhaps the ugliest two-week playoff meltdown in memory. His epic six-turnover performance against Carolina in the NFC title game left you with the distinct impression that he folded under pressure, and nothing he accomplishes this year will truly matter unless he conquers his postseason demons. That said, Palmer played at an MVP level for the Cardinals and was as consistently productive on a week-to-week basis as any quarterback in the league. Was that a career year aberration? We’re about to find out in Arizona, where Palmer’s bounce-back from January will be the story of the year.
Injury and age questions will hang over every season from here on out for Revis, who is 31, but there’s a chance those doubts may work in his favor. His five interceptions in 2015 were the most he’s hauled in since 2009, and even if they wanted to, teams couldn’t just write off his side of the field as they once did, since there are so few weak links on the Jets’ defense. Players who think the game as well as Revis does are always good bets to age well.
Between signing Jerrell Freeman and adding Trevathan, the Bears have rebuilt the heart of their 3–4 defense in one off-season. Initially a sixth-round pick in the 2012 draft (a pick Denver received in the Tim Tebow trade, for you trivia nerds), Trevathan gradually gained responsibility under Wade Phillips thanks to his versatility and reliability. In a pivotal late-season Monday Night Football win over Cincinnati, he stood up to the Bengals' bully ball, bringing down Jeremy Hill and Giovanni Bernard a combined 12 times and earning a +4.7 grade from Pro Football Focus. Three wins later, he showed off his ability to rush the passer and drop back in Super Bowl 50, leading the team with eight tackles and a fumble recovery while helping to limit Cam Newton's No. 1 option, Greg Olsen, to 41 yards and his lowest catch-percentage since Week 4 of the regular season. Now we'll get to see what Trevathan is capable of under Vic Fangio, who built Bowman and Patrick Willis into the best inside linebacker duo in the league during his time with the 49ers. Among the many excited to see what he brings to Chicago? President Barack Obama, who told the ‘backer during his White House visit, "I can't wait to see you play with the Bears."
The obvious focus for Oakland’s offensive uptick in 2015 fell on Derek Carr’s development and Amari Cooper’s arrival, but not to be overlooked in the Raiders’ resurgence is the improvement up front, and Jackson has been central there. He entered the league expected to be an imposing run blocker while carrying questions about his pass protection, but he was far more effective as a protector last season than he had been as a rookie, and he turned into an all-around force as his pile-driving presence continued to emerge. The Raiders will now pair Jackson with Kelechi Osemele to form arguably the toughest guard tandem in the NFL.
Only Jordan Matthews had more slot targets last season than Landry’s 102, and Landry caught 71 of those targets for 784 yards and two touchdowns. The second-round pick in 2014 was an explosive player in an offense that was anything but, catching the fourth-most passes in the NFL (110 on 166 targets), but only eight of those passes went over 20 yards, and he scored just four touchdowns. New head coach and offensive shot-caller Adam Gase has already said that he wants Landry to get more big-play opportunities both inside and outside, and Landry is certainly equal to the task. He has a great sense for exploiting openings in coverage, and he has the downfield speed to excel outside and threaten deep coverage on vertical seam and over routes. Those in the know have been aware of Landry's potential for a while; don’t be surprised if he joins the league’s upper echelon in everyone’s mind in ’16.
When the Giants signed the former Dolphin to a four-year, $85 million contract with $40 million guaranteed, most NFL fans reacted with a collective, “Who?!” But he was definitely worthy of being one of the first players off the market in free agency. We’ll have to see whether he was worth that coin. If Vernon continues on his current trajectory, he will be. Like fellow high-priced free agent Malik Jackson, Vernon has been slowly improving since 2012. He was already an elite run defender and a good pass rusher when given snaps, but Vernon finally got the chance to show what he could do last season. He was at his best when Miami lost Cameron Wake to injury: Pro Football Focus counted 57 total pressures and 33 stops over the final eight games. Those are full-season stats for most players.
With the addition of rookie Laremy Tunsil, Miami now has four first-round picks on its line, and Pouncey is probably the best of the bunch. Despite foot and hip injuries, the fifth-year man from Florida continued his overall excellence when he was able to play, and he’ll be a key part of the offense under new head coach Adam Gase. In 788 snaps last season, he allowed just half a sack and had just two penalties. There are few at his position in the NFL who combine drive-blocking and movement into such a formidable package.
A line of thinking exists out there that Robinson, headed into his third year, still could polish out some of the kinks in his game—he dropped eight passes last season, for example. If that’s true, look out. Robinson’s rookie season of 2014 was cut short by a stress fracture, but he was borderline unstoppable from Week 2 on in ’15. He scored in five consecutive games spanning Weeks 12 through 16, including a three-touchdown performance against Tennessee. All told, he hauled in 14 TDs, tied for the league lead with Brandon Marshall and Doug Baldwin.
Jenkins is an elite safety who recently received a juicy new contract extension (five years, $35 million) and spent a great deal of his time last season covering the slot (47% of his snaps, per Philly.com). The footwork Jenkins showed in sticking to those quick inside receivers also happens to be part of what helps him thrive as a safety. He couples that quickness with the experience gained over nearly 100 career NFL starts to stay a step ahead of the offensive weapons he’s facing. He rightfully took his first Pro Bowl trip a year ago.
Nobody who looks like Daniels should be able to do what the fifth-year Packer does as an interior rusher. He stands six feet even (generously), weighs about 290 (again, generously) and doesn’t appear to be what the league traditionally considers an elite athlete. But then the ball is snapped, and Daniels is all over the place, attacking opposing offenses against the run and pass. Daniels is listed as a 3–4 end, but he plays inside in Green Bay’s sub-packages often enough to be considered an elite inside guy. There are times when he’ll take on a center and guard as a one-tech end and simply embarrass everybody in his path, bulling both blockers back with his hand-fighting and root strength. He’s one of the better multi-gap players in the NFL, but it’s his ability to create consistent inside pressure at his size that makes him so unique.
Luck isn’t absolved of accountability in last year’s disappointment, when the Colts missed the playoffs for the first time in his four NFL seasons, but averaging out his performance from 2012 on puts him safely on this list. There’s no way to pretty up the seven games Luck managed to play last season, but he has the potential to live up to his No. 1 overall draft status and lead a team to the big confetti shower that awaits a Super Bowl winner. Perhaps 2015 will wind up being a positive in the long term, teaching him a lesson in perseverance and convincing him that success is not always ordained in steady, one-rung-at-a-time intervals.
When the Seahawks signed Baldwin to a four-year, $46 million extension with $24.5 million guaranteed on June 28, they did so knowing their top receiver might be a relative bargain in the long run. The undrafted star out of Stanford had a breakout season in 2015, leading the league with 14 touchdown catches. Twelve of those came from the slot, where Baldwin ran nearly 80% of his routes last season. Baldwin can do great things outside, but his skill set and mental approach lean perfectly to the slot position, where he can improvise openings with the best in the business. Baldwin’s greatest asset is his implicit understanding of the little things that separate good from great at the position. Watch him slow-play his route past coverage and then accelerate to the throw, or foot-fake a press defender into oblivion, or sell the wrong angle to take a cornerback out of the play, and you’ll understand why he’s so important to his team. He’s become a team leader, displaying toughness on and off the field, and he is absolutely fearless in traffic. Baldwin didn’t come into the NFL with any fanfare, but he’s doing his level best to make up for that now.
Suh’s first season with the Dolphins after his big free agency pay day had checkered results, as Miami coaches had him two-gapping and opening up holes for other defenders. It was a questionable strategy, reminiscent of the schematic disaster the Redskins created when they gave Albert Haynesworth the gross national product of France and similarly moved him away from his preferred playing style. But unlike Haynesworth, Suh adapted, and unlike Washington’s coaches back in the day, the Dolphins’ staff finally figured it out. Suh is great no matter where he plays, but he is of course best utilized as a three-tech power tackle who can cave in half of the offensive line when he’s on. Under new defensive coordinator Vance Joseph, Suh will return to the wide-nine defense he played with the Lions, which suits his talents. Suh rebounded after a slow start in 2015, but when used correctly, he remains as good as he’s ever been.
Johnson returned from injury in 2015 to great success, playing all 16 games last year and racking up 116 total tackles, four sacks, two interceptions and two forced fumbles. Only four players finished the season with more defensive stops than he did, and none of them can boast zero touchdowns allowed in coverage as Johnson can. In fact, PFF’s stats had him allowing the fewest yards per coverage snap among linebackers at .55. He also proved a serviceable spy on passing downs and showed the ability to disrupt quarterbacks when called on to blitz. The 33-year-old’s reward after his comeback season was a fourth Pro Bowl invite and fourth place in All-Pro voting. He tends to get overshadowed by KC's edge rushers, but Johnson's versatility is what allows Tamba Hali and Justin Houston to stay so aggressive, as he prevents openings behind them in both phases of the game. KC recognized his importance this offseason, inking him to a three-year deal despite his advanced age. Initially a weak fit in the 3–4 five years ago due to his inability to shed oncoming guards, Johnson has learned to use his size and speed to his advantage, whether that means shooting gaps and disrupting plays inside or chasing down outside rush attempts. In the Chiefs' Week 13 comeback victory against the Raiders, Johnson tallied six tackles in the 4th quarter, three of which were for a loss or no gain.
Norman’s stock skyrocketed in the first month of the 2015 season thanks to four interceptions and two pick-sixes, and I’ll go to battle for his game-clinching pick against the Saints in Week 3 as the best individual play of the year. That start was enough to scare offenses away from trying him often the rest of the way. Receivers will continue to test his physicality, but in Washington he should have another stout defensive front to pressure quarterbacks into the rushed decisions he reads and reacts to so smoothly.
Short was weighed down by questions about his motor coming out of college, and he proved that those concerns were completely off-base. Short played most of the defensive snaps at Purdue, which will wear a lot of young tackles down, but he shined once he got into Ron Rivera’s defense in Carolina. He broke out in 2015, amassing 13 sacks and 81 total pressures through the Panthers’ dominant run to the Super Bowl. As with all interior defenders, Short is about far more than his sacks. Just watch the first half of this year’s divisional round win over the Seahawks, and you’ll see how one guy can wreck an entire passing offense with his mere presence. Short will occasionally lose leverage when he’s too high in his stance, but he’s amazing in pursuit for his size, and he gets a surprising number of his sacks with open-field speed and second-level determination.
Twice now, Charles’s career has been derailed by an ACL injury. The latest setback came five games into a promising start to 2015—a vintage Charles performance in which he was dangerous both as a runner (5.1 yards per attempt) and a receiver (on pace for 67 receptions when he got hurt). At 100% he is an ideal back for the modern game, a three-down playmaker with more than enough evasiveness and speed to be deadly in the open field. On that note, it’s easy to forget that Charles also was a dangerous return man early in his career. He nearly hit 1,000 kick-return yards in 2009, paced by a 97-yard TD vs. Pittsburgh. The Chiefs long ago took him out of that role because he was too valuable to their offense, but the skill set that worked on special teams still gets the job done. Now, if he could just stay healthy.
Of the Texans’ 5,564 yards last season, more than a quarter (1,521) came courtesy of Hopkins receptions. As the focal point of the Houston offense, Hopkins elevated his game to another level, catching 111 passes (on 192 targets) for 1,521 yards and 11 touchdowns. As with Dez Bryant, A.J. Green and other elite receivers, his numbers would have climbed even higher with better quarterback play. Productive all over the field, Hopkins is an acrobat in the end zone and along the sideline, using his size (6' 1", 218 lbs.) to box out defenders and plucking difficult catches out of the air with his tremendous hands. Still just 24 years old and now paired with what Houston hopes is a legitimate franchise QB in Brock Osweiler, Hopkins could set his sights on a 2,000-yard season in the near future.
The Panthers had their issues on the edges last season, right up through their Super Bowl loss to Denver, but they were sensational up the middle. Turner’s potent run blocking is what drew Carolina to him initially, when it swiped him at No. 92 overall in the 2014 draft. After a solid rookie season, Turner was an anchor in that facet during the Panthers’ 2015 campaign, when they rushed for a combined 2,282 yards. Turner also found his footing as a pass blocker last year. He was hit with seven penalties (plus four false starts), which was a minor blemish on a breakthrough season.
Bill Belichick has shuffled through a long list of players in the secondary, some of them superstars (Darrelle Revis) and others of the diamond-in-the-rough persuasion (Malcolm Butler). The one constant since 2010 has been McCourty, whose value only has grown since the Patriots slid him to safety midway through the ’12 season. He has the requisite capabilities to handle a variety of roles. He tends to be at his best, though, when dropping deep in coverage and providing the support New England’s occasionally ragtag collection of cornerbacks needs. Belichick clearly trusts his scheme, hence his revolving door at CB. But McCourty’s development as a safety over the past few seasons is one of the main reasons why that scheme works.
Bennett’s 25.5 sacks in the three seasons since he left the Buccaneers for the Seahawks won’t blow anyone away, but if there’s a poster child for the misleading nature of that statistic, it would be Bennett. He is a disrupter, pure and simple. Whether he is making a guard miss by jumping to the outside with his exceptional feet or quickly dipping inside a tackle, Bennett has rare athletic ability for his spot on the defensive line. According to PFF, Bennett is second to only J.J. Watt in total quarterback pressures (292) over the past four seasons. He also happens to be elite at stopping the run as well.
When he's healthy, Gilmore is worth the hype, especially with the pressure Rex Ryan's defense puts on the Bills' corners. Gilmore (18) and rookie Ronald Darby (21) both finished in the top 10 in passes defended last season, with Gilmore often staring down each opponent’s top target and saddling Darby with extra work on the other side of the field. If he enters Week 1 with last winter’s shoulder surgery behind him, he should be in for a special season.
A legitimate No. 1 receiver from the moment he entered the league as the No. 4 pick in 2011, Green has been named to the Pro Bowl in each of his five seasons and has yet to miss the 1,000-yard mark. The Georgia product carries career per-year averages of 83 catches, 1,234 yards and nine touchdowns into the 2016 season, in which he will try to hit the 100-reception mark for the first time. He was on pace to challenge that mark last year before Andy Dalton suffered a season-ending thumb injury. Standing at 6' 4", Green is almost impossibly silky in his gait. If there has been a knock on Green, it has come from drops—he hit double digits in that category two seasons ago. Last year, he had just two miscues on 132 targets.
Moments after the Vikings picked Barr No. 9 overall in 2014, I wrote, “In the perfect scenario, Barr develops into a three-down player that has as much sideline-to-sideline ability as any linebacker in the league.” Turns out the Vikings knew what they were doing with that pick, because that’s more or less exactly what has gone down. In just two years time, Barr has emerged as an irreplaceable cornerstone in Mike Zimmer’s defense. As was the case when he was racking up 23.5 sacks over the 2012 and ’13 seasons for UCLA, Barr can be disruptive as a blitzer (3.5 sacks and 12 hurries last season). But he is far, far more than a one-trick pony—Pro Football Focus graded him out as the NFL’s top pass-rushing 4–3 linebacker, the third-best in coverage and above average against the run. His development has been swift and impressive.
The public often slams players who lose their overall excellence after their teams undergo schematic changes, while the respect earned by players who are indeed able to transcend major playbook shifts isn't equally distributed. If it was, you'd be hearing a lot more about Cox and his ability to transition from a three-tech/nose tackle role in his rookie season of 2012 in a 4–3 base defense to Philly's multi-front 3–4 over the last three years. Early on, Cox was asked to penetrate as a one-gap tackle, and he could do that very well with his power and speed. But under Chip Kelly and defensive coordinator Bill Davis, the Eagles moved to a two-gap 3–4 base front with some one-gap variables, testing Cox's mettle. A lot of aggressive one-gap players find it difficult to play the waiting game as a two-gap tackle, but Cox excelled last season with a career-high 9.5 sacks and 77 total pressures. He was flexed in everywhere from end to straight-up nose tackle, and he disrupted consistently. With the hiring of new defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz, Cox should flourish in a 4–3 more similar to his rookie campaign.
There's a lot of discussion as to whether Mathieu is a better safety or slot cornerback, but the point is moot, because he covers both positions so well. More than that, though, he's a force multiplier in James Bettcher's defense because he's a rover in the truest sense of the word. From tracking receivers in man coverage across the formation, to pattern reading slot receivers up the seam, to blitzing off the edge, to converging in zone coverage and helping over the top as a center-field defender who has the raw speed to keep up with any receiver in the league, there isn’t much he can’t do. What Mathieu may do best (and what the Cardinals allow him to do that other teams might not) is to guess right in the open field. He'll bait receivers and then close to pick off passes. He'll play off-coverage and move in for a tackle with very bad intentions. And if you're taking a slant across the field with free space in front of you, then you better keep your head on a swivel, because the Honey Badger is coming fast, and he don't care. That bold style leads to the occasional coverage lapse (he gave up five touchdowns last season, per Pro Football Focus), but his team will gladly deal with the occasional negative effects of his playing style because he's utterly unique in his positional versatility and complete commitment to whatever it is he's doing on the field.
Once he made his way into the lineup full-time, beginning in Week 4 at Arizona, Gurley was a phenomenon. In his first four starts, he rushed for an average of 141.5 yards. He hit the century mark just once the remainder of the season as the Rams’ quarterback play stalled out, but Gurley captured Offensive Rookie of the Year nonetheless. And anyone who saw him play would agree that his 1,100-yard debut season is just the tip of the iceberg for a back whose blend of power and speed is reminiscent of backs like Peterson and Marshawn Lynch. Should Jared Goff finally unlock the full potential of the Rams’ offense, Gurley has all the talent required to challenge that 2K rushing mark. He has to be considered among the favorites to win the 2016 rushing title.
Atlanta’s 2011 first-rounder paced all NFL receivers in 2015 with 136 catches and 1,871 yards—a clip of 116.9 yards per game. Jones is the league’s alltime leader with 95.4 yards per game for his career, well clear of runner-up Calvin Johnson (86.1). He exploded last season despite a near complete lack of help from his fellow receivers. An aging Roddy White caught 43 passes, Leonard Hankerson caught 26 and everything else ran through Jones, Devonta Freeman and, to a far lesser extent, Jacob Tamme. Jones remains as lethal as there is when it comes to tracking the deep ball and adjusting for a catch.
Remember when Dallas took Frederick with the 31st overall pick in the 2013 draft and everybody thought it was ridiculous? Nobody's laughing now. Frederick has become the most reliable and technically sound center in the NFL, and the epicenter of the league's finest offensive line. In 1,027 snaps last season, per Football Outsiders' charting database, he amassed just six blown blocks, allowed one sack, and just two hurries. Frederick has always been a mauler in the zone run game, but it's his development as a pass protector that makes him the best center in the NFL.
Is Berry a free safety? A strong safety? Does it matter? Wherever the Chiefs choose to play him, Berry makes his presence felt, and he should be even more effective in 2016 than he was during a ‘15 All-Pro season that came on the heels of cancer treatment. He spent the ’13 season solidifying himself as a dominant strong safety, but was deemed more of a free safety last season. The Chiefs vary their safety looks quite a bit, rolling three players from the position out more frequently than other teams tend to. Having Berry as an anchor puts them in an advantageous spot. Whether as the deep center fielder or playing underneath with a second safety over the top, Berry is a defender opposing teams must account for on every play.
It would be unfair to call any receiver “likely” to knock Brown from his perch as the league's best receiver, but Beckham could have the best chance to do so. Football’s version of the “Human Highlight Reel” (props, Dominique Wilkins), Beckham already ranks top 20 in Giants history for receiving yards ... and he has played all of two seasons. After posting 91 catches for 1,305 yards and 12 touchdowns as a rookie, Beckham bumped up all of those totals to 96, 1,450 and and 13, respectively, during his sophomore campaign. Thirty-two of his receptions last season came out of the slot, adding to how difficult a matchup Beckham can be. He is flat out electrifying whenever the ball is in the vicinity. We know it doesn’t take a perfect throw for Beckham to come down with a catch.
David tweeted through it when Tampa Bay fired Lovie Smith in January: “This is stupid, we can’t even have a consistent coach,” he wrote, moments later adding, “Outside looking in, y’all wouldn’t even understand how great of a coach/person he is.” Can’t blame him for being frustrated by another change at the top, but he could stand to benefit from the Smith-for-Dirk Koetter (and defensive coordinator Mike Smith) switch. While David turned it on over the second half of 2015, he never looked as comfortable under Lovie Smith as he did during his brilliant, All-Pro seasons of 2013, with Greg Schiano at the helm. On his game, David is a free-flowing missile and a standout playmaker in all phases. Despite a sluggish beginning last season, David still earned himself a Pro Bowl trip with three picks, 3.0 sacks, 19 pass breakups and nearly 150 tackles. Few defenders—not just linebackers—can cover the amount of ground David can while arriving with force.
There was bound to be a little rust for Peterson at the start of 2015, at age 30 and coming off a near season-long suspension. He limped his way into the year with a 10-carry, 31-yard Week 1 showing at San Francisco. After that? Peterson averaged just shy of 100 yards per game as he claimed his third rushing title—his 1,485 yards topped Doug Martin’s total by 83. Granted, it took Peterson an extra 39 carries to get there, but his ability to handle that heavy a load is a significant part of his appeal, too. When he plays a full 16 games, Peterson is a virtual lock for 1,300 yards and double-digit touchdowns. While fumbles have become an increasingly pressing issue, the rest of Peterson’s game remains on point.
A game manager, huh? Thankfully some perceptions die of natural causes. Wilson emerged as a playmaking machine in the second half of last season, doing it all for a Seattle team that needed its quarterback to carry the load without a healthy Marshawn Lynch. Wilson proved that his arm is plenty capable of NFL elite status, and when you combine that with the threat he presents with his legs—on both scripted and improvisational plays—there are only so many ways to defend him. Just remember how Wilson saved the day in the playoffs on that bitterly cold day in Minnesota, when his knack for finding a way to execute even when things were breaking down all around him made the difference for the Seahawks.
Williams is well respected by players around the league for his consistency, nasty attitude on the field and blend of strength and athletic ability. Now that he’s entering his second season with noted offensive line coach Bill Callahan, Williams is poised to move up even higher on this list. If anybody slips in front of him, Williams will easily be able to take their place as the next great tackle in the NFL.
Big Ben can still sling it—maybe better than he ever has, with a gaudy completion percentage of 68.0 and 328.2 passing yards per game (both career highs) last season. But his superb 8.4 yards per pass in 2015 was somewhat offset by the reality that he only started 11 games due to an assortment of injuries to his shoulder, knee and foot. That was the fewest starts of his 12-year career, and the Steelers need him for something closer to 16 games if they want to harbor legitimate Super Bowl dreams this year. Roethlisberger still takes a ton of punishment in the pocket, but last year he started to pay the price for all that pounding and big-play potential. With so much skill-player talent surrounding him, the goal in Pittsburgh has to be keeping Roethlisberger upright.
Chalk up Bryant’s 2015 campaign as one to forget. He played in just nine games, hampered the entire time by the broken foot he suffered in Week 1. And when he was out there, the Cowboys’ superstar had a ragtag crop of quarterbacks slinging the ball his way in place of Tony Romo. The result: career lows for catches (31), yards (401) and touchdowns (three). A healthy Bryant, though, has overcome his early-career inconsistency to become the gold standard for physical receivers. He overwhelms defensive backs downfield and especially in the red zone—he led the NFL with 16 touchdown catches in 2014. Bryant also has become an improved blocker, to the point of being dominant when he latches on to an opponent. When people talk of a model “outsider receiver,” Bryant is often the image that comes to mind.
The 31-year-old is one of the best offensive linemen in football, period. Up until Brandon Brooks signed a five-year, $40 million deal with Philadelphia in March, Yanda was the league’s highest-paid right guard. He’s been named an All-Pro for two years running and a Pro Bowler five straight times, and has missed just two games since 2009. Last season, Yanda allowed one half-sack—one—in more than 740 snaps in pass protection. Refs flagged him for exactly one holding call in each of the past two seasons, and both penalties were declined. Several players on this list are proficient in both run and pass blocking, but Yanda is absolutely dominant at both.
Peterson walked into the NFL in 2011 as one of the best athletes in the game at any position, which set an impossibly high bar for acceptable performance that he has somehow met in making three All-Pro teams in his first five seasons. When he gets beat, he gets beat for splashy plays and long touchdowns, but those are infrequent side effects of his eye for the big play, and his lockdown capabilities make opportunities for his marks to solve him a rarity.
Wilkerson has been moved around during his Jets career as the franchise bulks up with young linemen like Sheldon Richardson and Leonard Williams, but if you want to know how versatile he is, check out the Jets' Week 14 win over the Titans last year. Wilkerson picked up two sacks—one as a base 3–4 end and one as an end outside the tackle in the Jets' sub-package—and he forced a fumble as a one-gap nose tackle. There aren't many players with Wilkerson's speed on the move, and he has a great power base to accentuate it.
If there is a defender whose role and value match that of Earl Thomas’s, Smith might be closest. The Notre Dame product signed a five-year contract extension worth upwards of $10 million per year this off-season, and he deserves every penny of it. Minnesota coach Mike Zimmer asks the world of Smith, in all facets—Smith notched 66 tackles, two picks and 1.5 sacks in 13 games last season. The Vikings love to blitz, especially through the A-gap and doing so requires the utmost confidence in Smith to plug any resulting holes along the second and third levels. Smith is only getting better, too, which means he could surpass Thomas (if he hasn’t already) as the defender 31 other teams wish they had.
When healthy, Houston is arguably the best edge player in the league. He had 50.5 sacks in 54 games before a knee injury in the second half of 2015 slowed him down. He was thought to be on the right track to a full recovery after a postseason clean-up procedure, but instead he ended up needing ACL surgery, and an early-season return is in doubt. What’s not in question: Before the surgery, Houston was the most dominant outside linebacker in the game. His blend of speed and power along with his rare flexibility make him nearly impossible to block with just one man. Pity the offensive tackle that falls victim to Houston’s patented dip-and-rip pass rush move.
A holdout—and a rather unproductive one, at that—cut into Chancellor’s 2015 performance. He did not join the team until late September, and the rust was more evident than anyone would have preferred. Even so, the Seahawks’ defense was without question far better with Chancellor in the lineup than without him. Earl Thomas handles the deep middle, with Chancellor bringing the hammer on the second level, serving as essentially an extra linebacker on many of Seattle’s schematic calls. When both are out there together, it’s almost foolish for quarterbacks to test the Seahawks between the hash marks...except for the fact that Richard Sherman is lurking on the outside. Obviously, all of Seattle’s players in the secondary benefit from the presence of elite talent around him, but that does not diminish what Chancellor can do on his own.
What is it with the NFL and short defensive tackles? No matter how many of them come into the league and thrive, they always seem to be underrated and underdrafted. The 6’ 1", 286-pound Atkins was taken in the fourth round of the 2010 draft because he was moved all over the line at Georgia, and there were concerns about his intensity and consistency. But Atkins tore it up from his first summer with the Bengals and has only gotten better from there. Last year, he showed he had totally recovered from the torn ACL he suffered two seasons before with 11 sacks and a ton of pressures. Atkins can get to the quarterback with strength and leverage, but he has also developed a devastating rip move he uses to get past blockers at the line of scrimmage. When he turns on the speed to the pocket, it’s all over.
Like Staley, you could call Thomas ‘Old Faithful,’ but how about just excellent? There has been zero decline in Thomas’s play and you could make the argument that he’s still the best considering his flawless pass blocking. Thomas is the king of not having any wasted movement in his pass sets, and his balance is second-to-none. We didn’t have him as the No. 1 offensive tackle on our list because Thomas’s run blocking is very good but it’s not dominating.
Entering last season, Wagner made headlines by intimating that he was the "best linebacker in the league." While he is not the top linebacker on this list, the 26-year-old proved with another Pro Bowl appearance and a second-team All-Pro nod that he belongs among the position's elite. He started the year slow, possibly due to a pectoral injury, but found his form late. In Seattle’s playoff loss to Carolina, Wagner was one of the few defenders who had a positive first half as he made eight stops in the first two quarters, including a goal-line tackle on Jonathan Stewart after standing his ground amid a mess of blockers. He finished that game with 13 combined tackles. The Seahawks will seek revenge this year. They'll continue to rely on Wagner's speed in the middle of the field, which he uses to avoid linemen and find the ball carrier on running downs while quickly dropping into coverage to protect his part of the zone in passing situations.
Quite simply, Collins is one of the most versatile front-seven defenders in football. The 2013 second-round pick finished last season with 89 tackles, six pass breakups, 5.5 sacks, five forced fumbles and an interception. He also played 100% of the Patriots’ snaps, save for the games he missed due to a viral illness. The Patriots shipped out Chandler Jones this off-season, in theory, to help them lock up Collins long-term. He’s worth the investment.
No cornerback in the NFL gives his team as much functional versatility as Harris. In 2013, he allowed a 65.6 passer rating on 393 slot snaps and didn’t give up a single touchdown while registering three interceptions. In 2014, he gave up 20 receptions on 32 targets for 143 yards, no touchdowns, one interception and a 59.8 opposing quarterback rating. Those numbers put him near the top of the slot list, but his performance in ’15—a season in which the Broncos won the Super Bowl on the back of their defense—saw him on another level. Harris allowed 20 catches on 35 targets on 335 slot snaps, with no touchdowns, two interceptions and an opposing QB rating of 43.4. So, over the last three seasons, quarterbacks throwing to Harris in the slot have no touchdowns and six picks. Harris has become one of the most important defensive players in the league, regardless of position.
After a very good rookie season in which he showed wisdom beyond his years as a run defender, Mack turned in the pass rush stats to round out his game as a dual-threat terror last season when he tallied 15 sacks, which was tops among edge players and trailed only J.J. Watt for the league lead. At this point, there’s no edge defender better at defending the run at the point of attack than Mack. The trait that stands out is his tremendously low pad level, which is a big problem for the taller tackles because it allows his to get inside and under their long arms. Combine that with strength and an explosive burst, and the NFL’s next great edge disruptor has arrived.
Bell’s teammate, Antonio Brown, is the top wideout on our list, so the Steelers’ 1–2 punch at the skill positions should be envied by the league. The 48th overall pick in 2013, Bell left college as a bruising workhorse back with questions about his pass-catching prowess and has since become as potent a three-down back as there has been in recent memory. He caught 83 passes during the 2014 season (one more than Rob Gronkowski), en route to 2,200 total yards from scrimmage. He was on an 1,800-plus-yard pace again last season before a knee injury ended his year in Week 8. Bell claims his legs are even stronger now after rehab, but if he even can get back to his ’14 form after his pending four-game suspension, he should again be as productive as they come.
The rest of the NFL clearly didn’t have an answer for Newton’s multi-faceted game last season, at least until Denver pressured the daylights out of him in the Super Bowl, forcing some rare mistakes. But the 2015 MVP played a daring and breathtaking style of quarterback and almost single-handedly carried the Carolina offense to the biggest stage in football. Newton might never match his career year statistically, with those 35 passing touchdowns and 10 more on the ground, but he’s a unique talent who should only stand to benefit this season by No. 1 receiver Kelvin Benjamin’s return from injury.
Nobody makes top receivers disappear like Sherman does with his long arms and complete fearlessness at the line of scrimmage, setting him up to put the receiver in tighter quarters before the snap than almost anyone else. QBs have shied away from Sherman for several years, but when the ball comes his way, his hands don’t show any signs of rust.
The best pass defender at his position and one of the best run stoppers, too, Kuechly is the quintessential modern linebacker. Pro Football Focus gave him an absurd 99.5 coverage grade this year, and according to their accounting, throws involving Kuechly led to a 48.7 passer rating, 50 points lower than the average for linebackers. He finished the year leading the position with four interceptions, not including the two playoff picks he pulled down. He has the size to box out tight ends in the red zone and the eyes and feet of a safety, which help him patrol the center of the field. Then there’s his closing speed, which is most often seen when a teammate blows a coverage because Kuechly makes so few mistakes. His run-stopping abilities don't match his pass coverage, but third in the league according to PFF and a 30/30 scouting score from Bleacher Report ain’t bad at all.
Last season marked the first year since his rookie season of 2010 that Thomas did not earn some level of AP All-Pro honor—he was a first-teamer from ’12 to ’14. So, sure, Thomas may not have reached the insanely high bar he set for himself in previous seasons last year, but he still matched career highs in interceptions (five) and pass breakups (nine). More than that, he remains the standard at his position. Teams that have tried to replicate Seattle’s defensive approach repeatedly have run into the same issue: players like Thomas are almost impossible to find. He has the range to disrupt offenses from sideline to sideline, backed with the instincts to step up inside the hash marks. While Richard Sherman long has been the face of Seattle’s vaunted defense, Thomas is the straw that stirs the drink.
There is no player in the NFL who’s more disruptive on a down-to-down basis between the tackles than Donald. He was clearly a top-five talent in the 2014 draft out of Pitt, and yet he fell to the Rams at No. 13. Two years into his career, he has used his undersized frame to his advantage: At 6' 1" and 285 pounds, he gains ferocious leverage at the snap by getting under the pads of blockers and using his upper-body strength to move them back. Add in his quickness and pursuit speed, and there are long stretches when he’s just about unblockable, even though he faces double-teams on a regular basis. Donald amassed 11 sacks in ’15 and already has 20 in his short career, but his impact is about more than that. He’s an incredible run defender, and he racks up pressures in bunches—last year he had 79 in total and 51 defensive stops according to Pro Football Focus. He’s the epicenter of the Rams’ front four, and he’ll stay in that role for a long time.
Let’s just watch Brady accomplish more in 12 regular season games this year than most quarterbacks can with a full complement of 16. Wouldn’t that be so Brady? Even with quality-control issues on his offensive line and injuries to his receiving corps last season, Brady still had himself involved in the MVP debate for most of 2015, and when all was said and done New England barely missed out on a seventh Super Bowl trip with him at the helm. He’s 39, and at some point his age has to put some limitations on his game. But once again he’ll have something to prove this season when he takes the field post-suspension, and we’ve seen how much he can milk out of the man-on-a-mission routine. Pick against the Patriots in the AFC East at your own peril.
All you have to do is put on the film for the Broncos’ playoff games, during which Miller ran roughshod against the Patriots and Panthers on the way to Super Bowl 50 MVP honors. According to Pro Football Focus, Miller had 105 total quarterback pressures in 2015 (including the postseason), which was far and away the league lead. Miller, who had 11 sacks in the regular season, may be a bit of a wild card off the field, but that’s of no consequence to these rankings, which reward consistent elite play.
We did not witness Rodgers remotely at his best in 2015, but has he ever been more resourceful or shown a greater flair for the dramatic, turning the late-game Hail Mary into a high percentage pass? The Green Bay passing game never truly got in sync after the preseason loss of No. 1 receiver Jordy Nelson last year, but he’s still in his physical prime at 32 and capable of dissecting defenses with his deadly accurate right arm. Even if he didn’t crack 4,000 yards in the air a year ago, if there was a must-win game today, there’s no one who could be trusted more under center. With a healthy Nelson returning to the lineup, look for a highly motivated Rodgers to resume his rightful place as the game’s most complete quarterback in this passing-centric league.
Smith allowed just 22 pressures last season according to PFF, and while there are bouts of inconsistency, they are few and far between at this stage in his career as his technique rises to an elite level. Smith has the prototypical frame and athletic ability, and at 25 he’s just now coming into his own as a player. Browns bookend Joe Thomas is more consistent as a pass blocker, but Smith is an absolute butt-kicker in the run game, and that’s why he should be the best tackle in the league this season. He’s on his way to a Hall of Fame career.
An unstoppable star in fantasy football, Brown is the most dynamic player in the NFL right now. He has led the league in receptions each of the past two seasons (129 and 136, respectively) while averaging 1,766 yards receiving. Add in his punt-return prowess, and Brown is a threat to top 2,000 all-purpose yards every season, just as he has in three of the past five years. Ben Roethlisberger targeted him at least 10 times in games eight through 16 last regular season. Brown responded with a ridiculous 17-catch, 284-yard showing against Oakland (52 yards shy of the all-time mark) and later hauled in 16 receptions against Denver. The Steelers can line him up anywhere on the field without worrying about him getting open. He’ll make defenders miss time and again once he has the ball in his hands, too.
Like Tiger Woods in his prime, there’s simply Gronk and the field of every other NFL tight end. His 6' 6", 265-pound frame inherently gives him a distinct advantage, but he is nimble enough to create space—not that he needs much. He has also improved as a blocker: Bill Belichick last year compared his blocking skills to that of Giants great Mark Bavaro. The only issue with Gronk is that his physicality makes him injury-prone, but hey, that’s a pretty acceptable trade-off when you get to trot out one of the most dangerous, game-changing weapons of the modern era.
Watt's value isn't restricted to any one position—he's a sheer terror no matter where he lines up. Last season, per Pro Football Focus, he lined up at end on 63.2% of his snaps, which is the only reason he wasn't the best interior defender by a country mile. As a pass rusher, Watt succeeds no matter where he is because he has a special positional understanding of his responsibilities and how to maximize the results. As a nose tackle, three-tech or 4i rusher, he can drive blockers back with his upper-body strength and ability to peel off to a shoulder and drive his opponent back. On the edge—everywhere from 5-tech end to wide-nine sack artist—is where Watt shows his rare speed-to-power and precise understanding of angular leverage. If you were to take the great Bruce Smith and turn him into an every-gap monster (and in this day and age, Smith might have been asked to do exactly that), you'd have the player Watt is now.