- 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.