"This isreally hard," longtime NFL personnel man Mike Lombardi said one day inJune, staring at my original list of the top players in the NFL, ranked1¬†through 500. He shook his head. He rubbed his forehead. He chuckled."This is impossible."
"You shouldhave 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 waseven looking into the long snappers. But people wisely talked me out ofit."
Lombardi looked atme 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 rankMaurice Jones-Drew ahead of Brian Westbrook and Joseph Addai? Is there any waythe best cornerback in football is better than Carson Palmer? AdamVinatieri--144th? Ahead of 14 starting quarterbacks? What the heck do I do withPacman Jones, that knucklehead? Is he 49th, or 449th, or 14,449th?
Plus, a lot ofcolleagues whose opinions I respect told me I'd make more enemies than friendswith this exercise. I could just hear my next call to Rodney Harrison, thePatriots safety--or, rather, his call to me: "Two hundred andthirty-sixth?! Behind Leigh Bodden, Michael Roos, Jahri Evans? I never heard ofJahri Evans!"
September 2, 2007
Settle down,settle down. Give me a minute or two to explain why I did this and how I didthis. And to defend the list.
The genesis of theidea came when I saw a player the same size as Bears return demon DevinHester--5' 11", about 180--skyrocket up the draft charts in April. I'mtalking about Ohio State wide receiver-return man Ted Ginn Jr., and thoughthere were questions about his durability, he was as fast as Hester (page 84)and had similar quick-strike capability. Hester was the 57th pick in the draftin 2006; Ginn went ninth this year, to a Dolphins team with big needs atquarterback, offensive line, cornerback and pass rusher. "We've got a greatdefense, and we're going to be in a lot of close games in the fourthquarter," Miami coach Cam Cameron said. "What if Ted can make six orseven plays like Devin Hester made last year? How many games could hechange?"
So I thought Imight make a list, the best of the best. The criteria: importance of theposition (I had quarterback, left tackle, pass rusher and cornerback at thetop, but with room for the explosive player), talent level and age--with a nodto young players on the cusp of a breakout season (I rank opportunistic Jetssafety 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 top126. The best special teams player last year (outside of return men andkickers), Chiefs safety Bernard Pollard, landed at 320. Keeping in mind whatBill Parcells said in his most recent incarnation as an NFL coach--"It'sincredible what a field-position game this has become"--I made room on thelist for six kickers and six punters.
Then, as I touredtraining 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 themost important positions, in order. Interestingly, Kansas City vice presidentBill Kuharich was the only one to say he'd favor a franchise left tackle orpass rusher over a quarterback, unless that passer was Peyton Manning, or closeto it. And Jets coach Eric Mangini picked quarterback, interior defensivelineman, left tackle, running back. "The game has changed," he said."A disruptive tackle up the middle can collapse the pocket oftentimesquicker than the rusher coming around the edge."
As I crisscrossedAmerica, getting input from those NFL sources, I kept reworking the list.Kuharich, for example, wanted me to move Seahawks tackle Walter Jones from 10into the top¬†five, thought I had Donovan McNabb way too low at 91 and feltI 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 andBrees at 8, but I moved McNabb up to 72 because a cacophony of voices told mehe was too low.) I decided I wouldn't make a significant change unless at leasttwo people whose judgment I trusted could make persuasive arguments. Most toldme I was loony to have Rhodes ranked in the 20s and Bills tackle Jason Petersin the 30s. I believe Rhodes comes closest to Ed Reed (12), the best impactsafety in the game, and I believe Peters, a converted tight end, will be anAll-Pro within two years. So I wouldn't move them down even if Bill Belichickcalled and said, "Neither of those guys could make my team."
But I was swayedby the masses to make a few major shifts. Up: Bears defensive tackle TommieHarris (to 25), Browns linebacker Kamerion Wimbley (to 81), Steelersquarterback Ben Roethlisberger (to 85). Down: oft-injured Colts safety BobSanders (to 196) and quarterback Michael Vick, who may next play football in2010 (to 214).
Conclusions? I'vegot a few.
In addition togame changers such as Hester and Ginn, interior offensive linemen are becomingmore vital to team success. I have 13 guards and centers among my top 200,following the trend of rewarding centers ($6 million per year to LeCharlesBentley by the Browns in 2006) and guards ($7 million per to Steve Hutchinsonby the Vikings in '06, followed by three similar contracts this spring).Hutchinson, the game's best interior lineman, says the money matches the jobrequirements. "We're seeing 330-pound defensive tackles who move like ends,and teams are calling the same kind of exotic blitzes inside that they used tocall only on the outside," Hutchinson says. "And a bunch of these[defensive tackles] run the 40 like linebackers. If guards can't move well now,they can't play."
This is not aquarterback-rich league right now. Two thirds of the 32 teams aren't sure whotheir QB of the future is. Eighteen teams will start a passer who is in hisfirst or second year in the lineup. The quality at the position--consistentpassers who've shown enough all-star ability to be considered franchisequarterbacks--is frightfully low. Five years ago I'd have put 20 quarterbacksin the top 100. This year I have 12, and it was a stretch for Jay Cutler at 91and Matt Leinart at 99, neither of whom has proved anything beyond being brightprospects. 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 andChris Simms at 500.)
I tried to mirrorthe rising importance of specialists in recent years. In the four drafts from1995 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) isbetter than Carson Palmer (9)? I didn't get much agreement on that."Palmer's better," Rhodes says. "He can make every throw." Ascan Brees, whom I also consider a better leader and more productive. Last yearin New Orleans, with a less-talented receiver corps (by far) than he had inSan¬†Diego, Brees was more accurate, threw for more yards and had a higheryards-per-attempt average than Palmer--and lifted what had been an awful teaminto the NFC Championship Game.
The Ravens, whowere only 19-14 with no playoff wins over the last two years, have eightplayers in the top¬†100 (tied with the Chargers for most), including thevirtually unknown Kelly Gregg at 83. The Patriots have six, the Colts five andthe Seahawks four. The reason for all the Ravens: the vastly talented andwell-schemed defense, built through G.M. Ozzie Newsome's drafts. Even withAdalius Thomas gone to New England, seven of the top 88 players on the list areRavens defenders. Gregg at defensive tackle, for instance, consistently drawstwo blockers and is one of best pocket crashers in the game. If only they couldpick wideouts the way they pick linebackers.
Calvin Johnson,without playing a pro game, is ranked higher (63) than two Super Bowl MVP widereceivers, Hines Ward (94) and Deion Branch (245). Before he was taken secondin the draft, Johnson was considered by veteran scouts to be one of the bestcollege receivers of all time. The bet here is that the bombs-away Mike Martzoffense will maximize the talents of a 6' 5" receiver who runs like BobHayes.
Hester (69) iselectric, certainly, but should he be ranked higher than McNabb (72),Roethlisberger (85) and Brett Favre (113)? I'd argue that Hester, in his 326snaps (he was Chicago's fourth corner in addition to his return duties), hadmore impact last year than McNabb did in the 10 games he played before gettinghurt and that the Bears return man was a bigger headache to would-be tacklersthan Roethlisberger was to defenses. Favre, 37, gets dinged because he'll playonly 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--andmake a difference again. Being an altar boy was never part of the criteria. Inthe case of Vick, he wouldn't have been in the top 100 even with asqueaky-clean résumé because he still isn't the complete quarterback thatdefines NFL greatness at the position. Now, he may not play football againuntil he's 30 years old, and if that turns out to be the case, a ranking of 214might be generous. He's on the list because he'll have the chance to playagain, someday, and his skills won't fully erode in the meantime.
Rodney Harrison ison the phone. He is not pleased. "Two hundred thirty-sixth, huh?" hesays. "That is ridiculous. There is no way I'm the 236th-best player infootball. But this won't be the last mistake you've ever made, I can guaranteeyou that."
At this point hisvoice slips into a slow seethe. "But I appreciate your call, I reallydo," he says. "This is the motivation I need to step up my game alittle more and have a great season. So thank you." You're welcome.
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Though he ultimately decided that 10 quarterbacks belonged in the top 100,King (left, with Manning) believes that the quality at the position isfrightfully low overall. Five years ago, he says, he would have put 20quarterbacks in the top 100.