Brent Schwartz’s Top 100 NFL players of 2019

After making my first ever Top 50 list last summer, I decided to expand the list to 100 players this summer, in honor of the NFL’s 100 year anniversary.

Before diving in, here are some other notes and facts about my list:

 

— My rule in creating this beast is what I like to call the 70/30 rule. 70 percent of my decision to place a player on my list is based off that player’s last two or three seasons of play, and 30 percent is based off their potential in 2019.

 

— The Kansas City Chiefs and Dallas Cowboys come in with the most players (7). Following them are these teams — Chicago Bears (6), Los Angeles Chargers (6), Cleveland Browns (5), New Orleans Saints (5), Houston Texans (4) Jacksonville Jaguars (4) and New England Patriots (4)

 

— Although no rookies made my list, I did include 10 second-year players, showcasing the potential I see in the 2018 NFL Draft class.

 

— With the way the game is changing, there is a heavy importance on the middle of the field, specifically with pass-catchers who work primarily out of the slot, and the defensive backs who guard them between the hashes. There are eight players on my list that do most of their work — three on offense, five on defense — out of the slot.

 

— In addition to slot defenders, I have nine ‘hybrid’ defensive players on the list, showcasing the importance of versatility in defensive players that primarily focus on pass defense. For instance, Tyrann Mathieu plays as both a safety and a nickel cornerback, depending on the game plan. Derwin James, a safety who sometimes acts as a nickel cornerback or linebacker, is another example.

 

— Here are the number of players for each position, on the list:

Quarterback (15)

Running Back (8)

Wide Receiver (14)

Tight End (3)

Tackle (3)

Guard (3)

Center (1)

Defensive Tackle (8)

EDGE (16)

Linebacker (6)

Cornerback (15)

Safety (8)

 

— Here were the 25 players that nearly made my list, but were squeezed out in the evaluation process:

Stefon Diggs, WR, Minnesota Vikings

Danielle Hunter, EDGE, Minnesota Vikings

David Johnson, RB,  Arizona Cardinals

Lavonte David, LB, Tampa Bay Buccaneers

C.J. Mosley, LB, New York Jets

Alex Mack, C, Atlanta Falcons

David DeCastro, G, Pittsburgh Steelers

Dee Ford, EDGE, San Francisco 49ers

Malik Hooker, S, Indianapolis Colts

Eric Weddle, S, Los Angeles Rams

Dak Prescott, QB, Dallas Cowboys

Matthew Stafford, QB, Detroit Lions

Everson Griffen, EDGE, Minnesota Vikings

Micah Hyde, S, Buffalo Bills

Desmond Trufant, CB, Atlanta Falcons,

Richard Sherman, CB, San Francisco 49ers

Anthony Barr, LB, Minnesota Vikings

Geno Atkins, DT, Cincinnatii Bengals

Ndamukong Suh, DT, Tampa Bay Buccaneers

Marcus Peters, CB, Los Angels Rams

Melvin Ingram, EDGE, Los Angeles Chargers

Joe Mixon, RB, Cincinnati Bengals

Melvin Gordon, RB, Los Angeles Chargers

Aqib Talib, CB, Los Angeles Rams

Josh Gordon, WR, New England Patriots

 

Without further ado, the list…

 

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100. Marlon Humphrey – CB, Baltimore Ravens (Last year: NR)

After an offseason that saw Baltimore lose Terrell Suggs, Za’Darius Smith, C.J. Mosley and Eric Weddle, the Ravens will be looking for other defensive players for help. Humphrey has already exhibited shutdown cornerback tendencies. Expect him to make a big jump in Year 3.

99. Bradley Chubb – EDGE, Denver Broncos (Last year: NR)

Chubb’s rookie season was rather quiet for an edge rusher who notched 12 sacks. That’s scary. He can do much better, and he will. He’s an All-Pro caliber player in the making.

98. Gerald McCoy – DT, Carolina Panthers (Last year: NR)

He’s not the same player he once was, but he has some gas left in the tank. Tampa Bay released him and gave Ndamukong Suh his No. 93 jersey. That cleary irked him, seeing as McCoy joined their NFC South rival, the Panthers, over the Browns and Ravens. He’s a great addition for Carolina.

97. Roquan Smith – LB, Chicago Bears (Last year: NR)

From Dick Butkus to Brian Urlacher to Roquan Smith? Okay, those are lofty comparisons, but Smith has the talent to become one of the league’s defensive stalwarts for the next 10 to 12 seasons.

96. Casey Hayward – CB, Los Angeles Chargers (Last year: 39)

He’ll soon enter the downside of his career, but he’s still one of the most underrated cover corners in the league.

95. Tarik Cohen – RB, Chicago Bears (Last year: NR)

The Bears’ confidence in Cohen can be traced to the team’s willingness to let Jordan Howard go to Philadelphia for just a fifth-round pick. Cohen is virtually a human joystick. He’s Darren Sproles if Sproles were a viable feature back. And that’s a compliment. He’s a unique weapon that makes things easier for Mitchell Trubisky.

94. Deion Jones – LB, Atlanta Falcons (Last year: NR)

Deion Jones acts as Dan Quinn’s Kam Chancellor in the middle of the field on passing downs. He’s the prototype new-school linebacker who makes up for a lack of size in aggressiveness and speed. He’s a thumper that terrorizes pass catchers over the middle.

93. Earl Thomas– S, Baltimore Ravens (Last year: 37)

Even after a devastating leg injury that hindered his ability to command the money he wanted, Thomas lands in Baltimore to fill the shoes once occupied by Ed Reed. In his prime, Thomas was second best free safety of all-time, behind only Reed. His prime is over, but he still has some left in the tank. With Eric Weddle now on the Rams, this was a very important offseason signing.

92. Denzel Ward – CB, Cleveland Browns (Last year: NR)

Many were confused with the Browns’ selection of Ward with the No. 4 overall pick in the 2018 draft, when players like Bradley Chubb were on the board. We should know by now not to question Browns GM John Dorsey’s draft decisions. Ward is a legit star. The Browns are loaded with both homegrown talent and new additions.

91. DeForest Buckner – DT, San Francisco 49ers (Last year: NR)

With both Nick Bosa and Dee Ford joining the 49ers’ as edge rushers, expect Buckner to feast in the interior, while attention is paid toward San Francisco’s shiny new toys along the defensive line.

90. Frank Clark – EDGE, Kansas City Chiefs (Last year: NR)

Clark is a massive addition to a pass rush that needed it after the defections of Dee Ford and Justin Houston. Clark is better than either of them at this point. The Chiefs’ defense still needs a lot of work, but they’ll be better this season. Clark will be a main reason.

89. Leighton Vander Esch – LB, Dallas Cowboys (Last year: NR)

According to Pro Football Focus, Vander Esch was one of only four linebackers they scored above an 80 in both run defensive and pass coverage. And he was just a rookie. He’ll soar up this list in the coming years.

88. Byron Jones – CB, Dallas Cowboys (Last year: NR)

Jones was an efficient free safety before switching back to cornerback in 2018. He crushed it as Dallas’ No. 1 cornerback last season, earning a Second-team All-Pro nod. That’s not an easy switch. The best athlete of the 2015 NFL Draft should only improve as he further re-introduces himself to his old position.

87. Michael Bennett – EDGE, New England Patriots (Last year: NR)

Bennett quietly had a great one-year stint in Philadelphia last year with 9.5 sacks. He’ll turn 34 in November, but should still be one of the league’s most versatile defensive lineman under Bill Belichick’s defensive tutelage and schemes. Expect him to play on the edge for the majority of the time, while sometimes moving into the interior on clear pass-rushing situations. He’s a perfect fit for the Patriots.

86. Tyrann Mathieu – S, Kansas City Chiefs (Last year: NR)

Just like former Giants defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo was brought in to help solve Tom Brady, the Honey Badger was obtained with Julian Edelman in mind. Mathieu can act as both a safety and nickel cornerback. He’ll be moved around with the opposing team’s best offensive players in mind. He’s a gamer.

85. Cameron Heyward – EDGE, Pittsburgh Steelers (Last year: NR)

The versatile Heyward has been Richard Seymour-like in the 2010’s decade, acting as both a 3-4 defensive end and 4-3 defensive tackle in Pittsburgh’s defense. Although his best years are likely behind him, he’s still one of the league’s best players along the defensive front.

84. Marshall Yanda – OG, Baltimore Ravens (Last year: NR)

He’s 34 years old now, but he remains a model of consistency at one of the league’s grittiest positions.

83. Kevin Byard – S, Tennessee Titans (Last year: NR)

Despite going from a First-team All-Pro nod to not even making the Pro Bowl in the last two seasons, many thought Byard was even better last season than he was the year before. Byard himself described why he’s such a valuable player in a piece by Sports Illustrated’s Andy Benoit. 

“I pride myself on being able to play deep, being able to come in the box and play good run defense, being able to blitz,” Byard says. “And having the versatility to play the slot and cover tight ends—that’s one thing you don’t see a lot of safeties do consistently.”

As he enters the final year of his rookie contract, Byard is in for a big pay day in 2020.

82. Baker Mayfield – QB, Cleveland Browns (Last year: NR)

As soon as he took the field in a comeback win over the Jets in primetime, Mayfield’s infectious attitude took over a team that desperately needed an infusion of leadership. He deserves to be on this list, and he’ll prove that in 2019. He will be much higher in my rankings next summer.

81. Trey Flowers – EDGE, Detroit Lions (Last year: NR)

Matt Patricia was able to reunite with Trey Flowers in Detroit. Flowers was arguably the best player among the Patriots’ defensive front seven since the 2016 postseason. His ability to create havoc from both the edge and interior is something Patricia values in his defenses. He’s very Belicheckian. It goes without saying, but Flowers will be an excellent fit with the Lions.

80. Deshaun Watson – QB, Houston Texans (Last year: NR)

In just two seasons, Watson has earned a 14-8 record as a starter, vaulted the Texans to AFC South champs in 2018, and has earned a 103.1 passer rating thus far. His 45-to-17 touchdown-to-interception ratio is also impressive. He’ll only get better. The Texans made the right choice in rolling with him as their franchise quarterback .

79. Jimmy Garoppolo – QB, San Francisco 49ers (Last year: NR)

Garropolo’s first season as the 49ers’ starting quarterback was cut short by an ACL tear in Week 3. Like the quarterback he’s so often compared to, former teammate Tom Brady, expect this injury to be a mere speed bump to his ascension among the league’s best quarterbacks. With the additions of Tevin Coleman, Jerrick McKinnon (tore his ACL last offseason) and rookie Deebo Samuel coming into the fold, Kyle Shanahan and Jimmy G should conduct one of the NFL’s most efficient offenses. San Francisco is the ultimate sleeper team in 2019.

78. Patrick Peterson – CB, Arizona Cardinals (Last year: 35)

Even while slated to serve a four-game suspension to start this season, Peterson is one of the best talents in football. He may not be quiet as good now as he was a few seasons ago, but he has time to pick up the slack. Peterson turns just 29 this summer, despite already playing eight seasons.

77. Jared Goff – QB, Los Angeles Rams (Last year: NR)

He laid a dud in Super Bowl LIII, but he’s entering just his fourth season. He’ll learn from it. He’s one of the best young minds at the position.

76. Zach Ertz – TE, Philadelphia Eagles (Last year: NR)

Ertz is virtually a big receiver who produces best in crunch time. He’ll be Carson Wentz’ go-to-guy in 2019.

75. Desmond King Jr.  – DB, Los Angeles Chargers (Last year: NR)

He earned All-Pro honors as both a defensive back and return man last season. He’s as valuable as slot cornerbacks come. Chris Harris Jr. has made a living in this relatively new full-time position. Is King Jr. up next? He’s a great cover man.

74. Julian Edelman – WR, New England Patriots (Last year: NR)

There’s never been a player quite like Edelman. He can act as both a slot receiver and flanker (‘Z’) capable of working the sidelines at times. He’s dangerous after the catch and during pre-snap while motioning. He’s one of the most clutch players in the history of the NFL and may eventually make the Hall of Fame one day, if he has a few more seasons of excellence. Who’s doubting him?

Oh, and since 2015, the Patriots are 36-5 with both Tom Brady and Edelman on the field, which includes a 7-1 postseason mark and a 2-0 record in Super Bowls. New England is 23-11 otherwise since then. He’s a very important cog to greatest team in the history of the NFL. Enough said.

73. JuJu Smith-Schuster – WR, Pittsburgh Steelers (Last year: NR)

With Antonio Brown gone, JuJu is now the man in Pittsburgh. He’ll be up to the task. Pittsburgh is the wide receiver factory, and Smith-Schuster has the potential of the many Pro Bowlers that came before him.

72. Jurrell Casey – DT, Tennessee Titans (Last year: NR)

He’s one of the best run stuffers in the league, and an anchor on what’s becoming one of the league’s best defenses. In fact, the AFC South in general is turning into the league’s toughest division defensively. Who would have thought? Casey is part of the toughness that has helped turn this division into one that is unnoticeable from what it used to look like.

71. Chris Jones – DT, Kansas City Chiefs (Last year: NR)

With 15.5 sacks last season, Jones was one of the lone bright spots on a defense that eventually led to the Chiefs’ demise. He’ll have to improve his play against the run to move up this list. I think he will.

70. Kareem Hunt – RB, Cleveland Browns (Last year: NR)

He obviously needs to re-assess himself mentally, but he’s still one of the league’s best running backs. Can you imagine what he may do with Baker Mayfield, Odell Beckham Jr. and Jarvis Landry on this Browns offense?

69. Darius Slay – CB, Detroit Lions (Last year: NR)

Slay sat out of mandatory minicamp in search of a new contract. The Lions defensive back is slated to make an average of $11 million over the next two years. Considering the market, he deserves more. An underrated stud who can shut down pass catchers from both the slot and on the perimeter.

68. Mike Evans – WR, Tampa Bay Buccaneers (Last year: NR)

He’s produced good numbers over the last few seasons, despite the inconsistent quarterback play. Last year he put up career highs in receiving yards (1,524) and yards per catch (17.7). He’s the ultimate power forward who boxes out smaller defensive backs.

67. Amari Cooper – WR, Dallas Cowboys (Last year: NR)

Look how the Cowboys’ season turned around after he came in from Oakland. Cooper was worth the first-round pick given up in the trade. Just how good will he be after a full offseason of training with Dak Prescott?

66. Harrison Smith – S, Minnesota Vikings (Last year: 29)

Smith is a sure thing in the running game, garnering the best run grade (91.3) among all safeties in 2019, according to Pro Football Focus. He’s also the field general of Mike Zimmer’s defense.

65. Darius Leonard – LB, Indianapolis Colts (Last year: NR)

A second-round pick from the obscure South Carolina State, Leonard earned First-team All-Pro honors as a rookie. He belongs on this list, perhaps even higher. As a 221-pound linebacker, he’s an example of where the game is going. Is he the key to making the Colts an eventual winning team in the postseason?

64. Davante Adams – WR, Green Bay Packers (Last year: NR)

It took him a few years to turn into the pass catcher we all thought he’d be, but Davante Adams has arrived. In fact, he arrived a few seasons ago. He’s a legit No. 1 receiver, and is one of the best route runners in football.

63. Mitchell Schwartz – OT, Kansas City Chiefs (Last year: NR)

A First-team All-Pro tackle in 2018, Schwartz has earned All-Pro honors in all three of his seasons with the Chiefs. Pro Football Focus named him their top offensive lineman of last season.

62. Marshon Lattimore – CB, New Orleans Saints (Last year: NR)

He wasn’t quite as good in 2018 as he was in his rookie campaign, but he’s still one of the many young studs at cornerback.

61. Jason Kelce – C, Philadelphia Eagles (Last year: NR)

He’s the best center in football that plays with a nastiness that is an embodiment of the Eagles and the city of Philadelphia, in a good way.

60. A.J. Green – WR, Cincinnati Bengals (Last year: 42)

He’ll enter this season at the age of 31, but he still a top-tier playmaker on the outside. But will he spend his entire career in Cincinnati?

59. Carson Wentz – QB, Philadelphia Eagles (Last year: 31)

Wentz recently signed a four-year extension that guarantees him over $107 million, the highest guarantee in NFL history. He would have won the MVP award in 2017 had he not went down with an injury. Statistically, he was fantastic last season. But something didn’t look quite right. Is this the season he puts it all together through January? Or February? There’s a lot fo potential here.

58. Cam Newton – QB, Carolina Panthers (Last year: 28)

Cam’s availability is now in question, due to Carolina’s third-round draft choice of former West Virginia quarterback Will Grier. But when Newton is healthy, he’s one of the game’s greatest playmakers. He still has accuracy issues, but in increase in shorter throws to likes of Christian McCaffrey and Curtis Samuel should open things up for a Panthers offense that is in need of improvement. Newton will lead the way. Carolina is a fringe playoff team. Their hopes lie with Cam.

57. DeMarcus Lawrence – EDGE, Dallas Cowboys (Last year: NR)

He’s notched 26 sacks in two seasons, and we haven’t yet seen his best play. He’ll be better this season.

56. Tyron Smith – OT, Dallas Cowboys (Last year: 18)

Smith is still one of the league’s top-notch offensive lineman. He’s a behemoth with quick feet. He’s the perfect tackle in terms of size and attributes.

55. Kyle Fuller – CB, Chicago Bears (Last year: NR)

He had the best year of his career last season. He can guard all types of pass catchers, but seems to do his best against slot receivers. He should be even better in 2019.

54. Chandler Jones – EDGE, Arizona Cardinals (Last year: 40)

He remains one of the best pure pass rushers in the game. The young Cardinals will need his experience, as well as his sack numbers. He’s led the league in that number (41) since he joined Arizona in 2016.

53. Xavien Howard – CB, Miami Dolphins (Last year: NR)

Dolphins head coach Brian Flores knows an elite cornerback when he sees one, having worked with guys such as Aqib Talib, Darrelle Revis and Stephon Gilmore when he worked with the Patriots’ secondary. So it’s safe to assume Howard is worth the big bucks (five-year, $76 million extension) he signed on for this offseason.

52. A.J. Bouye – CB, Jacksonville Jaguars (Last year: 21)

He was a bit down in 2018, but so were the Jaguars in general. The Jalen Ramsey-A.J. Bouye duo should be back in full force starting this September.

51. Eddie Jackson – S, Chicago Bears (Last year: NR)

The Alabama production made major strides in Year 2. Eddie Jackson’s 94.7 coverage grade on PFF in 2018 was Pro Football Focus’ highest for a safety EVER. He was also a First-team All-Pro. Simply put, one more season like that and he’ll belong in the top 10 or 15 on this list. He may already be the best safety in football. But I’d like to see him prove that last season wasn’t a mini fluke.

50. Phillip Rivers – QB, Los Angeles Chargers (Last year: NR)

It’s worth wondering if Rivers’ chance at a Super Bowl ring has passed, but at the same time, the Chargers field the most talented roster in the AFC, no question, heading into 2019. Can Rivers finally bring a title to the Chargers? He has the tools, and the accuracy. He doesn’t quite get the credit he deserves.

49. Calais Campbell – EDGE, Jacksonville Jaguars (Last year: 25)

Campbell is the heart and soul of the Jaguars. A defensive linchpin who is aging, but still highly effective. He’s had success at defensive tackle, 3-4 defensive end and as a 4-3 edge setter. He can literally do it all. Campbell should also serve as an excellent mentor to this next young stud.

48. Yannick Ngakoue – EDGE, Jacksonville Jaguars (Last year: NR)

Heading into his contract year on a team that should be embarrassed by it’s play last year, Ngakoue has tools and recipe for a monster season in 2019. He’s one of the NFL’s best young players, who will help lift Jacksonville back to (or near) the playoffs this season. I’m sensing a few 18-plus sack seasons in his future. Yes, he’s that good. He should be the highest-paid free agent in 2020. Will he remain in Jacksonville?

47. Jamal Adams – S, New York Jets (Last year: NR)

Adams is a machine in the backend, who should only improve going forward. He’s a tackling machine that harkens back to the safeties of yesteryear, and has the moxie of a new-age star. The Jets need that attitude if they’re ever to dethrone the Patriots in the AFC East.

46. Grady Jarrett – DT, Atlanta Falcons (Last year: NR)

He’s one of the most underrated players in football, even after he jumped onto the stage with three sacks of Tom Brady in Super Bowl LI. Recently, he’s matched his pass-rushing skills with the ability to defend the run. He’s an All-Pro caliber player, and will prove such in the coming seasons.

45. Tre’Davious White – CB, Buffalo Bills (Last year: NR)

White has emerged as one of the NFL’s best players under 25. In Bills-Patriots matchups, White has guarded Rob Gronkowski to the point of his frustration on a few plays. That says a lot.

 

44. Keenan Allen – WR, Los Angeles Chargers (Last year: 33)

As long as he stays healthy, Allen is one of the great matchup problems in the NFL. Working primarily out of the slot, Allen has a size advantage (6-foot-2, 211 pounds) over most slot-defending specialists, making him one of the league’s more valuable players.

43. Adam Thielen – WR, Minnesota Vikings (Last year: NR)

Many doubted Thielen after his surprising 2017 campaign, but the Vikings’ No. 1 wideout backed up his play in 2018, despite the team’s struggles. Adjusting to a new quarterback, Thielen hauled in 113 passes for from Kirk Cousins for 1,373 yards. He’s one of the game’s very best route runners.

42. Jadeveon Clowney – EDGE, Houston Texans (Last year: 36)

The former No. 1 overall pick has been versatile for the Texans. He’s acted as a linebacker, stand-up rusher and defensive end in the Houston’s 3-4 scheme. Already a veteran (he’s entering his sixth season) Clowney has legit NFL experience at the ripe age of 26. His next few seasons should be the twilight of his career. Will he spend all of those years in Houston?

41. Xavier Rhodes – CB, Minnesota Vikings (Last year: 22)

He’s still the prototypical cornerback at 6-foot-1 and 215 pounds, with speed. He’s built to shut down guys like Michael Thomas and Julio Jones out the outside.

40. Zack Martin – G, Dallas Cowboys (Last year: 34)

He’s still one of the league’s best guards, who happens to block for the NFL’s leading rusher over the past three seasons. There’s no coincidence there.

39. David Bakhtiari – OT, Green Bay Packers (Last year: NR)

Bakhtiari is the NFL’s best tackle heading into 2019. As the left tackle on an offensive in influx, Bakhtiari’s consistency will be beneficial to Rodgers and the Packers.

38. Matt Ryan – QB, Atlanta Falcons (Last year: 27)

Despite the inconsistency from former offensive coordinator Steve Sarkisian, Matt Ryan put up similar numbers last year to that of his 2016 campaign that won him the NFL MVP award. With Dirk Koetter returning as the team’s offensive coordinator — a position he held from 2012 to 2014 in Atlanta — expect the familiarity to boost Ryan’s efficiency, and the Falcons’ record in the process.

37. Christian McCaffrey – RB, Carolina Panthers (Last year: NR)

McCaffrey proved he’s one of the league’s best running backs in 2018. What comes next? If he can somehow play better, it should help Cam Newton and a Panthers offense that needs to improve. With an offensive mind like Norv Turner entering Year 2 with C-Mac, expect Carolina’s do-it-all threat to be even more dangerous in 2019.

36. Travis Kelce – TE, Kansas City Chiefs (Last year: 32)

With Rob Gronkowski retired, Kelce is now the league’s best ‘big’ wide receiver. Kelce is capable of blocking as an in-line tight end, but works best in the slot or spread out wide. With Kareem Hunt gone, and question marks surrounding Tyreek Hill’s availability, Kelce will be as important as he’s ever been.

35. Ben Roethlisberger – QB, Pittsburgh Steelers (Last year: 26)

The most indispensable player in Pittsburgh is not Antonio Brown or Le’Veon Bell, rather it’s Ben Roethlisberger, who will return for his 16th season as the team’s franchise quarterback. With JuJu Smith-Schuster and James Conner capable of partly filling Brown and Bell’s role, Pittsburgh should flourish with less distractions in 2019. Big Ben will get Pittsburgh to the postseason.

34. Myles Garrett – EDGE, Cleveland Browns (Last year: NR)

If you’re perplexed on how I have Garrett this high, keep in mind I use a 70/30 rule (explained above), which bases 70 percent of my decision off the past couple of seasons, and 30 percent tied to expected play in 2019. According to Pro Football Focus, Garrett’s 56 pressures from the right edge ranked second in the league. He also registered 13.5 sacks. He’ll be even better this season. Year 3 for Garrett is poised to be a big one.

33. Quenton Nelson – OG, Indianapolis Colts (Last year: NR)

Nelson proved he was worth the No. 6 overall pick in last year’s draft, and then some. As a rookie, Nelson earned First-team All-Pro honors. I believe he’s already the best offensive lineman in football. The Colts have found a franchise cornerstone up front.

32. Akiem Hicks – DT, Chicago Bears (Last year: NR)

Hicks remains one of the league’s most underrated players as a dominant force in the middle of the Bears’ defense. With Mack and Leonard Floyd occupying the edge, Hicks has solidified the interior with versatility in both stopping the run and pushing the pocket on immobile quarterbacks. After Mack, he’s the best player on perhaps the most talented team in the NFC entering 2019.

31. Le’Veon Bell – RB, New York Jets (Last year: 10)

When on the field, Bell was the game’s best running back due to his ball carrier vision and dual threat ability. Since he took a year off, there’s a mini mystery factor involved here. Just how rusty will the former Steeler be? He may end up back in the top 10 next year if he’s the same player in New York. They’ll likely feed him early and often to take the pressure off a young Sam Darnold.

30. Derwin James – S, Los Angeles Chargers (Last year: NR)

I couldn’t believe James fell to the No. 17 overall pick in the 2018 Draft. He’s a safety, but can rush the passer, play man coverage on pass catchers (both in the outside and from the sot) and sit back in a deep or intermediate zone. He has the speed and power to do it all. In an era with versatile, mismatch options on offense of all kinds, James is the perfect counter piece on defense.

29. George Kittle – TE, San Francisco 49ers (Last year: NR)

Kittle came alive in 2018, proving to be the league’s best tight end after the catch and downfield. So we might as well say it — With Gronkowski gone, he’s the best tight end in football.

28. Cameron Jordan – EDGE, New Orleans Saints (Last year: 23)

Jordan remains one of the league’s best defensive lineman, with both First-team and Second-team All-Pro honors in the last few seasons. Last year, Jordan tallied 12 sacks and 18 tackles for a loss. The Saints’ stud defender will have to play up to par again if New Orleans is to get back to a second Super Bowl.

27. Chris Harris, Jr. – CB, Denver Broncos (Last year: 30)

The Broncos awarded Harris with a a more lucrative one-year payment, before he hits the market as a 30-year-old next season. He’s still the best slot cornerback in the NFL today, and all-time. He can also play on the outside. He has a few great seasons left. If I’m the Colts, I’d consider bringing him aboard in 2020, if not sooner, via a midseason trade. In the AFC you need to get by the Patriots, and there’s no one better at covering Julian Edelman.

26. Tyreek Hill – WR, Kansas City Chiefs (Last year: 44)

We’ll see what Roger Goodell decides to do regarding his off-field issues, but one this is for sure — we’ve never seen another player like him. He has world-class speed and playmaking skills. The Chiefs need him.

25. Joey Bosa – EDGE, Los Angeles Chargers (Last year: 24)

A foot injury slowed him down, but Year 4 is usually a big jump for many in their NFL careers. This is a big year for him. He’s still a dominant force on the edge.

24. Jalen Ramsey – CB, Jacksonville Jaguars (Last year: 9)

Ramsey had a down year in 2018, but so did his entire team. With an offseason to shake off the bad taste in their mouths from last year, Ramsey should return as one of the league’s stars this upcoming season.

23. Michael Thomas – WR, New Orleans Saints (Last year: 27)

Thomas emerged as one of the NFL’s best receivers in 2017, and one-upped his play in 2018. Playing mostly as a “big” slot receiver, Thomas’ knack for finding the soft spot in zones has proven instrumental in his connection with Drew Brees. He’s much more than that though. Line him out wide and he’d beat almost any man-to-man coverage. His best years are ahead of him.

22. Julio Jones – WR, Atlanta Falcons (Last year: 16)

Jones remains the most physically dominant wide receiver in football, even if his absolute prime years are behind him. He’ll still play at (or near) an All-Pro level in 2019, but his very best years are likely in the past. Regardless, expect the Falcons to be a much better squad this season.

21. Antonio Brown – WR, Oakland Raiders (Last year: 4)

Brown’s last five or six seasons rank among the best stretches of any offensive weapon in NFL history. In my years of watching football while growing up, only Marvin Harrison is on his level in terms of consistent greatness from year to year. While pass catches like Randy Moss, Larry Fitzgerald, Calvin Johnson and Julio Jones have been more physically dominant, Brown is able to use his speed and route-running to leave defenders in the dust. He’s been the best receiver of the 2010’s, no question.

But I expect the first signs of decline to creep in this season as Brown acclimates to the Derek Carr and the Raiders in his age-31 season. Still, he’ll be a Second-team All-Pro caliber pass catcher.

20. Alvin Kamara – RB, New Orleans Saints (Last year: 45)

In just two seasons, Kamara has become one of the most dynamic weapons in football.

19. Fletcher Cox – DT, Philadelphia Eagles (Last year: 46)

Cox remains the most dominant defensive interior force in the league outside of Aaron Donald. He’s the anchor of that Eagles’ defense.

18. Todd Gurley – RB, Los Angeles Rams (Last year: 11)

Gurley’s numbers (and carries) dipped significantly during the tail end of last season. Will his knee issues be a problem? He’s still one of the league’s most explosive offensive players, but there are concerns.

17. Saquon Barkley – RB, New York Giants (Last year: NR)

Last year’s Offensive Rookie of the Year tallied over 2,000 yards from scrimmage, 15 touchdowns and five yards per carry behind a lackluster offensive line in 2018. Imagine what he’ll do in Year 2 behind a re-tooled offensive front? The sky is the limit for Barkley. He’ll be perceived as one of the NFL’s top 10 players soon enough.

16. Odell Beckham Jr. – WR, Cleveland Browns (Last year: 15)

Injuries and an eroding Eli Manning have hindered what should have been a historic five-season stretch to begin his career, after his initial three-year run of greatness. Will the change of scenery to Baker Mayfield and the Browns revitalize him? I think so. He will be viewed as the best receiver in football by the start of the next decade.

15. Stephon Gilmore – CB, New England Patriots (Last year: 48)

Gilmore was the league’s best cornerback in 2018. His ability to be left on an island as a premier No. 1 cornerback has allowed Bill Belichick to play loose with rest of his defensive backs. Like Ty Law, Asante Samuel, Aqib Talib and Darrelle Revis before him, Belichick seemingly views a top-flight cornerback as an important piece to his defense. Gilmore has certainly earned his hefty contract signed in 2017. I see him as the Kawhi Leonard of the NFL, due to his supreme play and low-key demeanor.

14. Andrew Luck – QB, Indianapolis Colts (Last year: NR) 

After a sluggish 1-5 start, while adjusting in his return to the field, Luck led the Colts to a 9-1 mark the rest of the way before downing the Texans in Houston in the postseason. Despite an offense featuring T.Y. Hilton and Eric Ebron as his go-to guys, the former No. 1 overall pick prospered. He’s back on track to become one of the league’s best signal callers. In fact, he’s there already. The Colts area building something special under GM Chris Ballard. That all starts with No. 12’s play. He’ll win a Super Bowl in Indianapolis, as well as an NFL MVP award or two.

13. DeAndre Hopkins – WR, Houston Texans (Last year: 19)

Hopkins has consistently played at an All-Pro level in three of his past four seasons, mostly with lackluster quarterback play, before Deshaun Watson. It’s time to give him his due. Have you seen some of his catches? He’s the best receiver in football right now.

12. Ezekiel Elliott – RB , Dallas Cowboys (Last year: 20)

Elliott is the heart of the Cowboys’ offense, not Dak Prescott. The Cowboys running back has led the NFL in rushing yards since entering the league in 2016, despite missing six games in 2017 because of a suspension. He’s a bell cow running back in a new era that has few of them.

11. Luke Kuechly – LB, Carolina Panthers (Last year: 13)

Keuchly has been the best linebacker of the 2010’s, and is primed for at least one or two more seasons at this level. With the Panthers in the midst of a heavy re-tooling period, they’ll rely on Kuechly to anchor a defense that needs to partly return to the level they were at from 2013 to 2015, to get back to the postseason.

10. Bobby Wagner – LB, Seattle Seahawks (Last year: 14)

Due to his play in all facets of the linebacker position, Wagner has vaulted past Kuechly as the game’s best linebacker.

As seen in the tweet above, Wagner was the lonely linebacker in the NFL to have PFF grades of 90.0 plus in both run and pass coverage. With the Legion of Boom completely gone, the Seahawks will lean on Wagner defensively, like they have with Russell Wilson on offense. He is the quarterback of the Seahawks’ defense, as well as the unit’s best player.

9. Von Miller – EDGE, Denver Broncos (Last year: 5)

Miller remains in the mix for bragging rights as the game’s best edge rusher, with only Khalil Mack having a better say entering this season. With future 2020 Top 100 player Bradley Chub rushing the passer on the other side, Miller should continue to get his chances at the quarterback. The two should be a formidable duo in 2019.

8. J.J. Watt – EDGE, Houston Texans (Last year: 17)

After two shortened seasons due to injury, Watt returned at about 95 percent of what he used to be in 2018, registering 16 sacks and earning a First-team All-Pro nod. Considering he’s a former three-time NFL Defensive Player of the Year, that puts him pretty high on this list. His versatility in being able to line up as a 3-4 defensive end, or 4-3 defensive tackle remains an important attribute. As does his athleticism for his 6-foot-5, 295-pound frame.

 

7. Russell Wilson – QB, Seattle Seahawks (Last year: 6)

Wilson continues to elevate a team that has lost a ton of talent on both sides since their back-to-back Super Bowl trips earlier in the decade. With Doug Baldwin gone, Seattle will lean on the run game, as well as Wilson’s increasing rapport with T.J. Lockett. Wilson is one of the few quarterbacks that can elevate any roster to 10 wins. He also recently expressed to NFL.com’s Mike Silver that he wanted to play until he’s 45.

6. Drew Brees – QB, New Orleans Saints (Last year: 12)

Brees was off to a season of historic proportions in terms of accuracy (74.4 completion percentage) before the Saints slowly bottomed out, resulting in a controversial NFC Championship Game loss at home. Like Tom Brady, the Saints’ franchise player is holding off Father Time. Brees has this year and maybe the next to bring home a coveted second Lombardi Trophy to New Orleans. The Saints have the team to do so. It’s all on number nine.

5. Khalil Mack – EDGE, Chicago Bears (Last year: 7)

Mack immediately helped transform an already-talented Bears defense into a juggernaut unit upon arrival. He slowed down a bit toward the end of the season, but expect him to pick right back up with a fury this upcoming season.

4. Patrick Mahomes – QB, Kansas City Chiefs (Last year: NR)

Mahomes was the best player in football last year. No passer before him has ever been able to make some of the mind-bending throws he showed us last season. With Kareem Hunt gone, and the uncertainty around Tyreek Hill, Mahomes will have his chance to prove that he’s not just a one-season wonder. He may never put up those numbers again, but he’ll get better. He’ll be more efficient as he continues to grow accustom to NFL defenses. There’s nothing this guy can’t do. The Madden NFL 20′ cover star is the new face of the league. But such was Cam Newton in 2015, before falling back to earth. Expect Mahomes to solidify his place among the game’s elite quarterbacks in 2019. He’s different.

3. Aaron Rodgers – QB, Green Bay Packers (Last year: 2)

Rodgers has been dealing with an erosion of talent ever since the Packers lost in the 2014 NFC Championship Game, and have failed to supply enough young ballers to replace older veterans. With a new GM and head coach in town, expect Rodgers to play with a renewed sense of energy. These next two or three seasons may secure his place among the NFL’s greatest quarterbacks.

2. Aaron Donald – DT, Los Angeles Rams (Last year: 3)

After winning his second consecutive Defensive Player of the Year award, it’s clear Donald remains the most disruptive defensive player in the NFL. At this point, Donald is on his way to becoming one of the great defensive players of all time.

1. Tom Brady – QB, New England Patriots (Last year: 1)

From dealing with the Super Bowl LII hangover, to struggling out the gate with Phillip Dorsett and Chris Hogan as his top two receivers, to performing amidst the addition and subsequent subtraction of No. 1 outside target Josh Gordon, Brady battled through it all to silence his detractors in earning a sixth Super Bowl ring. Although Mahomes was more effective for much of the season, Brady beat him twice with lesser offensive weapons. That included his performance for the ages, on the road in Kansas City in the AFC Championship Game. Entering his age-42 season, Brady remains the NFL’s best player, both presently and all time.

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