Before I reveal the top 20, it’s important to understand that football is at an all-time high as far as competition, and some of the players left off deserve to be mentioned because they are still good players.
Brian Urlacher- A few years back this guy was one of the best defensive players in football, but is at a point now where he has to salvage his recognition as a great middle-linebacker after tough injuries.
Lance Briggs, Justin Tuck, Steve Smith (Giants), Dallas Clark, Kris Dielman, David Diehl, Jeff Saturday, Lee Evans, Sebastian Volmer, Brandon Merriweather, Quentin Jammer, Michael Crabtree, Matthew Stafford, Eli Manning, Marques Colston, Reggie Bush, Jon Stinchcomb, Leonard Davis, Curtis Lofton, Mike Jenkins, Kerry Rhodes, Karlos Dansby, Yerimiah Bell, and Donald Penn
20. Jon Beason (LB, Panthers)– The Miami Hurricanes pretty much own this list, and Beason is just another guy that is part of the lineage of the football factory that is the ‘U.’ Even though Ray Lewis is still a great middle-linebacker in this league, it’s obvious the reigns have been passed down to Beason for the ‘U’s’ best to offer at the position, with his athleticism, sure-tackling, and cover skills he brings to the table.
19. Vince Wilfork (DT, Patriots)-The value of a great nose-tackle cannot be seen until it’s gone. It doesn’t show up in the stat sheets with sacks, or tackles. It is most evident if he were to miss a game like Vince did at Buffalo last season. The Bills exploited the void, the run-stuffing Wilfork left, by running all over New England in the opening drive. New England made up for the void by converting their defense to an 11-man standing scheme to confuse the dreadful Bills offense and pulled out the victory.
Everyone knows how stingy the Pats organization can be, but this off-season they didn’t mess around with the threat of Vince leaving by locking him up to a long-term deal.
18. Nnamdi Asomougha (DB, Raiders)– Nnamdi is a falling tree in the woods with no one there to hear it, the woods that is the Oakland Raiders. The interception totals aren’t there for this guy because no quarterback will throw his way. But neither are the blown coverage’s that lead to long completions, or touchdowns.
As long as he’s with the organization that is run by the corpse that is Al Davis, Asomougha will remain an ‘under the radar’ star but this guy is easily top 2 in the league when it comes to shutting down opposing receivers.
17. Ben Roethlisberger (QB, Steelers)– As repulsive a human being this dude is, he can play football. He’s not going to blow up a stat sheet with 350 yard passing games, and 3 TD’s, but he will come through when needed with escape acts in the pocket to extend the play to the point it becomes impossible for DB’s to defend receivers for that long.
In 2005 the Steelers won the Super Bowl despite him, in ’08 they couldn’t have won it without him.
16. Jared Allen (DE, Vikings)– Not often do you see teams giving up first round picks in the NFL to take a veteran, but Jared Allen is good enough that Minnesota gave up two first-round picks to Kansas City for the ferocious pass rusher.
The value of having an elite pass rusher on a team can turn a mediocre defense into a good one. Allen can run around you, or through you, the guy gets to the quarterback.
15. Jake Long (T, Dolphins)– The value of a left tackle, especially in the era of quarterbacks dropping back 40+ times per game, makes this position more valuable than it has ever been.
Jake Long is 2/2 when it comes to being selected for the Pro-Bowl, and will serve as the key factor for Chad Henne’s development.
14. Joe Thomas (T, Browns)– Don’t worry Cleveland, even though Lebron left you still got this guy as your team’s left tackle. Just kidding. But if it’s one thing Cleveland has it is a left tackle. Last year an all-pro, and in his rookie season he allowed Derek Andersen to excel with his 29 TD passes for a solid 10-6 Browns team.
13. Adrian Peterson (RB, Vikings)– May be the best runner in football. Sports has not seen this extraordinary combination of power and speed Peterson has, since Bo Jackson. What’s scary is this guy has not even neared his potential yet.
The reason why Brett Favre and the Minnesota Vikings offense was as successful as they were last season was because Peterson required so much attention from the defense to alleviate the pressure off of Favre.
The severe weakness that keeps Peterson this low is his ball control. Running backs fumble sometimes, but Peterson does it more frequently, and in big spots. The last two seasons he has had 16 fumbles, and in the ‘NFC Championship’ last year he had 3, including one inside the goal line.
Even though he is the physical specimen that he is, Chris Johnson is still the more dangerous runner. Peterson may be a nightmare to tackle one-on-one, but he does not have the elusiveness of Johnson, making him more susceptible to gang tackles, consequently more susceptible to injuries, and fumbles.
12. Kevin Williams (DL, Vikings)– The year Williams was drafted in 2003, Minnesota was slotted for the 7th selection and let the 15 minute clock run down to allow Jacksonville and Carolina to jump over them and make the selection before them. The Vikings front office finally took Kevin Williams at 9, which was a ploy to take the guy they wanted, and give him less money.
Boy did this pick pay off. Williams has been selected as an all-pro the past four years, is the best interior D-lineman in the game, and by far the most versatile with his ability to play defensive tackle, defensive end, and nose tackle in a 3-4.
11. Troy Polamalu (S, Steelers)– Missed a chunk of the season in 2008, the year Pittsburgh won their 6th Super Bowl, but without his return the Steelers are left with 5. Not as good in coverage as Ed Reed, but still very good as a ball-hawking centerfielder. Puts the fear of death into receivers crossing the middle. Polamalu is a great open-field tackler that strikingly resembles a linebacker when he plays around the line of scrimmage. He is the complete safety.
Polamalu’s instincts are unmatched. The play in the ‘AFC Championship’ stuffing Joe Flacco on a 4th and inches sneak leaping through the lineman to get to Flacco and seal the Pittsburgh victory. A handful of times you have seen this guy come out of nowhere and dig out a game-changing interception where the ball was just inches from the ground. Troy is a big reason why Pittsburgh has two championships the past five seasons.
10. Larry Fitzgerald (WR, Cardinals)– The difference between him and Andre Johnson is miniscule, in fact you can argue back and forth who’s the better receiver. His four games in the 2008 playoffs that led the Arizona Cardinals to its first Super Bowl appearance were incredible. The man was a force that could not be stopped, setting the postseason record for receiving yards, touchdowns, and receptions.
Andre is faster, but they both excel as route runners. Although Fitz, is the league’s best at snatching jump balls, victimizing DB’s on the regular.
9. Demarcus Ware (LB/DE, Cowboys)– More sacks than any player in the past three years. His versatility as a standing 3-4 OLB, or defensive end in the 4-3, and ability to hound the ball carrier, separate him from the leagues elite rushers like Freeney and Allen.
Ware is the best edge rusher in football with excellent speed and footwork, and good strength and balance. The nightmare that is the Dallas pass rush complimented by Anthony Spencer is possible because of the invaluable Ware.
8. Andre Johnson (WR, Texans)– Coming off back-to-back years of 1500+ receiving yard seasons, and 100+ catches to boot. Johnson ‘s production lives up to the physicality of a 6’3 225 lb. burner, with optimal strength at the receiver position.
If you were to combine the physicality of Randy Moss and TO, Andre Johnson is what you would get. The complete package who has a great work ethic and love for the game, and I’m afraid we haven’t even seen the best of him yet.
7. Ryan Clady (T, Broncos)– The 6’6, 325 lb. left tackle takes over the title Walter Jones held for so many years as the league’s best offensive lineman. Mike Shanahan, the man who drafted Clady recently praised his footwork after he was asked what drew his interest to Clady before drafting him. Shanahan is hoping his 2010 first choice Trent Williams can be half as good as Clady.
Frankly it does not matter if your quarterback is any of the elite guys in this league. If there isn’t a left tackle that can protect him then that talent at quarterback is wasted. So with quarterback being the most important position in football, the second most important position is the tackle that is mainly responsible for protecting him.
6. Tom Brady (QB, Patriots)– When you talk about the greatest quarterbacks of all-time, it is not a legitimate conversation unless Tom Brady is mentioned. The ridiculous argument about him being a system quarterback through the years of Super Bowl success was dispelled (For the fools) in the 2007 season when he had the greatest single-season for a quarterback with over 4,800 passing yards, and a record 50 passing TD’s. Almost impressive is his 2006 season where he was throwing to the likes of Doug Gabriel, Jabar Gaffney, and Reche Caldwell as primary targets at one point in the season and still carried the team to a 12-4 record and a near Super Bowl birth.
The pocket presence, deadeye accuracy, remarkable arm strength, and toughness in the pocket were seemingly absent last year from the Brady we’re used to seeing, after he was recovering from the major knee surgery. Otherwise if it was intact, he’s 1-3 on this list.
Until we see the Brady we’re accustomed to (I think we will), and that he has recovered from the knee injury, I can only consider the most recent display of ability, and that puts him just outsides the top 5… For now.
5. Darrelle Revis (DB, Jets)– Not to sound redundant about my post-season award gripes, but somehow Revis was not the ‘Defensive Player of the Year?’ In eight games he faced Andre Johnson, Randy Moss, Marques Colston,, Reggie Wayne, Steve Smith, Chad Ochocinco, a collection of the best receivers in football, and held them all under 50 yards receiving.
Being a Patriots fan, I love it that he and the Jets are at odds right now. He knows that for them to be a contender, it begins and ends with him, and that is the truth. The only reason Rex Ryan’s defense is so successful is because of Revis’s ability to lockdown an entire side of the field in coverage so a safety can blitz and bring the pressure because Revis is not going to get beat in man coverage. Fact is, the type of defense Ryan schemes is heavily reliant on personnel, which he had in Baltimore, and now he has Revis, or does he?
I’ve been flip-flopping whether or not Revis should be higher. The fact is cornerbacks can only do so much to impact a game. Last season’s AFC Championship for example saw Peyton Manning completely ignore the receiver that was covered by Revis the whole time. Manning still managed to pick apart the Jets defense and lead the Colts to an easy victory. So as good as he is, he still does not have the same impact as an elite quarterback (Brady is still elite by the way).
4. Peyton Manning (QB, Colts)– ‘Hall of Fame’ quarterback that can turn any offense into a threat to score. Many would put him in the top 3 of this list, most likely at 1 even. While he is in that argument for his ability to run an offense with the leadership ability any coach would covet, passing ability that makes any throw possible, and quick release to eliminate an effective pass rush, he still remains outside of that top three.
The reason is he has came up short in a handful of big games (9-9 record in the playoffs), and even though football is the ultimate team game a lot of the mistakes that led to the loss were from his doing. Say what you want about Reggie Wayne not finishing the route, the play was never there and it was a mistake by Manning to throw that pass. And not to beat a dead-horse, but that’s not an aberration, he’s struggled in the playoffs his whole career. In the year the Colts won the Super Bowl he threw more interceptions than touchdowns.
At the end of the day he is a top-5 all-time quarterback in the game’s history, and does not seem to be slowing down.
3. Drew Brees (QB, Saints)– The title for best quarterback in the league now belongs to him. Of course you have to consider the body of work to determine any players standing in the league, but since Brees has joined the Saints he has been a force just like this past season, but came up short while the defense was still trying to put it together.
What Brees does better than any other QB in the league is throwing to a covered receiver. Sometimes the DB’s are helpless after playing the best possible defense they can, only to have Brees hit his receiver on the back shoulder for a completion. He does it routinely while defying the belief that quarterbacks are supposed to come in a 6’5 frames to withstand the brutal pass rushes in the NFL.
2. Chris Johnson (RB, Titans)– Should have been the unanimous ‘MVP’ choice for having one of the greatest single-seasons in the NFL that included 2,509 all-purpose yards, 2,006 rushing yards that put him in the 6-man club, 22 rushes of over 20 yards (second leading back only had 12), a gaudy 5.6 ypc on 358 attempts, and an unprecedented 5, 85-yard TD runs in one season. But hey, lets just give the award to the quarterback we like the most for that season.
Johnson’s combination of uncatchable speed, steady balance to help shed tackles, and the impossibility of tackling him in the open-field makes this guy a nightmare for opposing coaches, and linebackers and defensive backs who have to try and tackle this guy.
Traditionally burners like Johnson have not been able to thrive in the NFL at the running back position. The difference with Johnson though is that his speed at the position is unprecedented, and he can run inside the tackles despite his size, which is essential for an every down back, and important for durability purposes.
Not a lot of separation between him and Willis, and for the top 5 for that matter.
1. Patrick Willis (LB, 49ers)– I don’t care what anybody says about making him the best player in the league. He is the most complete defensive player in the game today at the middle linebacker position, that is great at tackling, rushes the quarterback very effectively, and terrific in coverage. He is also one of the best athletes in football, check him out chase down a wide receiver from behind.
Even though I acknowledged the QB position as the most important in football, I still feel Willis belongs at number one because he provides more to a team at that position than what the best QB in the league does right now. There are a handful of QB’s that have similar numbers of over 4,000 passing yards and 30 TD’s, but there is not one linebacker, or defensive player with the exception of Revis, who can elevate their team’s defense to the heights that Willis does.
Willis is a playmaker that can give a team a much-needed extra possession from either a sack and forced fumble, or an interception. And he is somebody that can be an anchor to a defense that could potentially average less than 13 points a game if the complementary pieces are in place.
Willis’s non-stop motor, and playmaking abilities the last three years has made up for a lot of the deficiencies the 49ers have not only on defense, but offense as well.
It’s not crazy at all to say this guy may go down as the greatest middle-linebacker to play the game. Not at the pace he is on now.
In conclusion, Miami beats Michigan 9-7, NFC has 51, AFC has 49, there are 56 players on offense, 43 on defense, and 1 on special teams, and the receiver position has more than any other position in the top 100.