When the staff of The MMQB—SI's dedicated NFL site—bounced around ideas for a ranking of the most influential people in pro football, we spent a good chunk of time arguing not just about who should be on such a list, but about what it means to be "influential" in the NFL. Wouldn't Roger Goodell, as commissioner, always top such a ranking? That would be dull. To differentiate our list, we focused on the 2015 season, weighting qualification heavily toward what happens on the field. So players and coaches predominate on The MMQB 100. And each year this list will change, maybe dramatically; people who wouldn't normally be thought of as influential make the cut in 2015 because of their significance to the upcoming season.
For instance, you wouldn't typically consider an NFL line judge a critical figure, but Sarah Thomas will be this year. She's the first full-time female official in the league's 96-year history. Nor would you have the GM of the league's worst team on the list, but the Bucs' Jason Licht is risking his franchise's future on a promising QB with a pockmarked background. And you generally wouldn't include a college football coach, but Jim Harbaugh makes the cut because every time Michigan wins and the 49ers lose, Niner Nation will be up in arms.
As we unveil The MMQB 100 between now and July 17, we'll have spots for a U.K. native named Nigel, a retired linebacker, a backup QB and the fifth receiver on a Super Bowl contender ... and that last one's our little surprise. So here's a preview of The MMQB 100, which debuts this week on the TheMMQB.com with our countdown from 100 to 71. Check the site each week for another installment. And let the arguments fly.
June 22, 2015
Since grilling commissioner Roger Goodell over the NFL's domestic violence crisis and a possible conflict of interest in the Deflategate investigation, Nichols has gotten tremendous support from football fans and her viewers. "The league has worked very hard over the years to weave itself into the fabric of American life," she says, "but when you take on that public trust, we're all going to hold you to a higher standard."
When the Jags took Bortles with the No. 3 pick in 2014, they knew he was a raw talent; as a rookie he had a few brilliant moments but mostly looked overwhelmed. For a fan base wearing the scars of four straight double-digit-loss seasons, Bortles doesn't have to be Mark Brunell. He doesn't even have to be David Garrard. He just has to make enough progress to show that he won't be the next Blaine Gabbert. He has to become proof positive of hope in Jacksonville.
No player had a greater discrepancy between stats and performance in 2014 than Khalil Mack. That's a good thing. Mack's four sacks represented a small fraction of the damage he inflicted as a pass rusher. Mack consistently ate offensive tackles alive with his lateral burst and redirect ability. He also shined against the run. Oakland, consistently weak on defense during its 12-year playoff drought, finally has a game-changing talent.
ODELL BECKHAM JR.
He sat next to Anna Wintour during New York Fashion Week, texts with Michael Jordan, dines with LeBron James, fields appearance requests from every network talk show, can't count his endorsement offers, has one of the NFL's top-selling jerseys and, at age 22, will appear on this year's cover of Madden. Beckham is possibly the most popular nonquarterback in the NFL—and he has yet to play a full 16-game season. Ever since his spectacular one-handed grab against the Cowboys in Week 12, the 2014 first-rounder has been pegged as New York's next great sports celebrity. Can he live up to the hype—fair or unfair—or will he flatline as a one-catch wonder?
RAMS RUNNING BACK
It's hard to believe the two-year drought without a back drafted in the first round ended with a player five months removed from ACL surgery. But that's the kind of talent Gurley is. The combination of power and speed he showed in three seasons at Georgia led some NFL evaluators to proclaim him the best thing to come out of the backfield since Adrian Peterson—and convinced the Rams to rank him No. 1 on their draft board. "You can't teach the things he was doing," former Bulldogs teammate Malcolm Mitchell says. "Watching tape won't even help you prepare for playing against him. His power, his speed; he was jumping over people." The Rams eagerly made Gurley the No. 10 pick on draft night, believing they can build an offense around him. Now the question is, Will he and his knee be able to live up to the lofty expectations, and how soon?
No player will face more scrutiny in 2015 than Winston, whose exceptional talent may be outweighed only by the baggage that accompanied his arrival in Tampa Bay as the first pick in the draft. By now America is well-versed in Winston's tumultuous college career, both on and off the field. Winston could demonstrate poise and maturity, show flashes of on-field greatness and lift a desperate team to respectability. But another off-the-field incident might doom Winston as a franchise quarterback, and his coach (Lovie Smith), general manager (Jason Licht) and offensive coordinator (Dirk Koetter) could be collateral damage. So, Famous Jameis, which is it going to be?
Carolina paid big to keep the dynamic (and inconsistent) Newton in Panthers blue. The steep price, $103.8 million over five years, was as much a testament to the state of the QB market—one of this year's biggest targets was Josh McCown; enough said—as to Newton's accomplishments over his first four seasons. He has already demonstrated he can develop as a passer and win—even with a shoddy offensive line and mediocre supporting cast, Carolina has won two straight NFC South titles—but the stakes are higher when you're a $100 million man. Newton seems to have no problem in the spotlight, recently telling WCCB--TV in Charlotte, "Nobody has the size, nobody has the speed, nobody has the arm strength, nobody had the intangibles that I've had." Maybe so, but he'll have to back up his words this season and elevate those around him to prove Carolina made the right choice.
After a toxic 2014 season, the 49ers desperately need less drama. Hence the unsexy pick of Tomsula, the longtime defensive line coach, to replace Jim Harbaugh. Tomsula didn't exactly wow NFL nation in his first public appearances, but his players know him as congenial, intelligent and a relentless optimist. As San Francisco copes with significant losses as well as a quarterback reinventing himself, Tomsula hopes to smooth things over with his positivity. We'll quickly learn if the franchise is turning the corner to stability or if it spoils even further.
For the complete MMQB 100 list—beginning this week with Nos. 100 to 71—go to TheMMQB.com