Top 100 - Brady's Final season?

Brent Schwartz’s Top 100 NFL Players of 2022

After a long offseason, pro football has returned, and I come bearing a gift.

This is my fifth annual NFL Top 100 Players list. Over 100-plus hours of research and execution was poured into this, I kid you not. I put my heart and soul into this exercise, and I hope whoever reads this enjoys it, and learns something along the way.

As much fun as I have with the ranking, I mostly use this teach myself and others by digging deeper into the players, teams, schemes and trends that make this league so fascinating.

For instance, my favorite trend I noticed when creating this list are that bigger “bell cow” running backs, capable of carrying the ball 25-plus times a game, are slowly returning. Like many things on Earth, this league can be cyclical.

To highlight more of a new trend, as big and talented pass catchers begin populating the pro game and moving around offensive formations, there seems to be a litany of big and fast “positionless” defensive backs now being employed. Some are cornerbacks that play in the nickel as often as they play outside. Others are deep safety/box safety/nickel hybrids that can cover every different style of new-age pass catcher.

There’s many more subtleties that can be uncovered from doing such a piece, so I’ll just let everyone identify other findings themselves. So let’s get into it.

But before we dive into the list, let’s look at some important notes and data:

— As it’s always been with this exercise, my criteria in ranking players remains my self-created 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 2022.

You’ll notice I left Deshaun Watson off the list, as the Cleveland Browns quarterback will miss at least 11 games this season due to suspension from the league after being accused of sexual misconduct by more than two dozen women during massage sessions. It goes without saying, but a quarterback who misses that many games in a season won’t be nearly as valuable. Additionally, some of the details reported by accusers are heinous. The situation is uncomfortable to even discuss.

In addition to Watson, there were two players initially on my list when I began the process in April and May, before circumstances caused them to drop off. Those players are tight end Rob Gronkowski, who retired, and Dallas Cowboys tackle Tyron Smith, whom I had at No. 69 on this list before he suffered a knee injury that will likely keep him out until December, and if not, the whole season.

— Here are the teams with the most players on my list: 

Los Angeles Chargers (9)

Tampa Bay Buccaneers (8)

Los Angeles Rams (6)

San Francisco 49ers (5)

Kansas City Chiefs (5)

Las Vegas Raiders (5)

Cincinnati Bengals (5)

Cleveland Browns (5)

Indianapolis Colts (5)

Baltimore Ravens (4)

Pittsburgh Steelers (4)

New Orleans Saints (4)

Since I began this exercise back in 2018, no two teams have had more Top 100 players than this year’s iterations of the Los Angeles Chargers and Tampa Bay Buccaneers. Both teams are considered some of the most talented rosters in the NFL, along with the defending Super Bowl champion Los Angeles Rams. Together, the Chargers, Bucs and Rams make up for nearly a quarter of the players on this list. The San Francisco 49ers actually have the most top-end talent on my list, as all five of their players listed ranked in my top 30.

What you may find surprising is that this year’s Super Bowl favorite, the Buffalo Bills, only have three players on this list. And the Philadelphia Eagles, widely considered one of the most talented rosters in the league after adding pieces this offseason, have only one player on this list. Of course, each of these teams have great depth, and if I ranked the top 300 players in the league, both Buffalo and Philadelphia would surely have many more players listed here.

— Here are the number of players selected for each position:

Quarterback (13)

Running Back (9)

Wide Receiver (19)

Tight End (5)

Tackle (5)

Guard (6)

Center (2)

Defensive Interior (7)

EDGE (13)

Linebacker (5)

Cornerback (8)

Safety (8)

(NOTE: Deebo Samuel was counted as a WR here; Micah Parsons was registered as a LB)

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

Tyler Lockett, WR, Seattle Seahawks

Marcus Davenport, EDGE, New Orleans Saints

Tre’Davious White, CB, Buffalo Bills

Kwity Paye, EDGE, Indianapolis Colts

Rashan Gary, EDGE, Green Bay Packers

J.J. Watt, EDGE, Arizona Cardinals

Chandler Jones, EDGE, Las Vegas Raiders

DeVonta Smith, WR, Philadelphia Eagles

Amon Ra St. Brown, WR, Detroit Lions

Kendall Fuller, CB, Washington Commanders

Jason Kelce, C, Philadelphia Eagles

Josh Jacobs, RB, Las Vegas Raiders

Saquon Barkley, RB, New York Giants,

Terron Armstead, OT, Miami Dolphins

Daniele Hunter, EDGE, Minnesota Vikings

Josh Allen, EDGE, Jacksonville Jaguars

Michael Thomas, WR, New Orleans Saints

Marshon Lattimore, CB, New Orleans Saints

Micah Hyde, S, Buffalo Bills

Darius Slay, CB, Philadelphia Eagles

Roquan Smith, LB, Chicago Bears

Kenny Clark, DI, Green Bay Packers

A.J. Dillon, RB, Green Bay Packers

Jordan Mailata, OT, Philadelphia Eagles

Christian Barmore, DI, New England Patriots

And now, without further ado, the list…

*******

100. Hunter RenfrowHunter Renfrow — WR, Las Vegas Raiders (Last year: NR)

The list begins with a player on the cusp of entering his prime heading into Year 4 in Raiders receiver Hunter Renfrow.

Renfrow nearly doubled his career-best numbers in his third season, going for 1,038 receiving yards and nine touchdowns on 103 catches. Impressively, his 103 receptions on 128 targets gave him the second-best catch rate (79.9%) of any receiver in the league last year, after the Cardinals’ Rondale Moore, who often garnered catches on de-facto reverses via pre-snap motion.

This season, Renfrow will be playing under new head coach Josh McDaniels, which bodes well for his chances of having even bigger break-through season in 2022, considering McDaniels’ offensive partly revolves around the slot receiver position.

Las Vegas’ offense has a full arsenal of offensive weapons (Darren Waller, newcomer DeVante Adams, Josh Jacobs, etc.), but Renfrow’s chemistry with returning quarterback Derek Carr, and the reciever’s smooth, nuanced route-running ability should keep him in the league’s top 20 in targets this year.

He’s primed to become a breakout star via both efficient, on-field play and fantasy football production this season.

99. Matthew Judon  Matthew Judon — EDGE, New England Patriots (Last year: NR)

Entering last season as one of the Patriots’ biggest free agent splash signings of the Bill Belichick era, Matthew Judon lived up to the hype with a career-high 12.5 sacks as a stand-up EDGE defender in New England’s mostly 3-4-style scheme.

His torrid play faded a bit down the stretch (he suffered a rib injury and contracted COVID-19), but looking at his season in totality, it was superb.

In addition to his impressive sack total, Judon also notched 64 pressures (best by a Patriot since 2018) in 2021, to add to his 169 total since 2019, good for 10th-most among NFL edge rushers since 2019.

When staying focused on the edge, he’s one of the the better defenders at his position in the league. He’s both quick and powerful as a pass rusher and is no slouch in setting the edge in the run game. He can play on the strong side or back side, but in a perfect world the Patriots would benefit from him rushing the passer on the lighter side of formations, but the team doesn’t quite have the personnel at this juncture to make that happen.

The Patriots will rely heavily on Judon once more in 2022, and the veteran has a great chance of an even better season in Year 2 of his stint in New England.

98. Tyrann MathieuTyrann Mathieu — S, New Orleans Saints (Last year: 51)

After three seasons in Kansas City playing the best football of his career, the “Honey Badger” will suit up for his hometown New Orleans Saints in his age-30 season after signing a three-year, $33 million deal with them this offseason.

Mathieu’s play may have dipped a little in 2021 compared to his scorching two-season stretch in helping the Chiefs get to back-to-back Super Bowls, but the veteran do-it-all defensive back still should excel in a Swiss army knife role, excelling in nickel/slot, the box, and as a two-deep safety.

Last year, Mathieu spent most of his snaps as a box safety (501), according to Pro Football Focus. But he still registered quite a few plays as a deep safety (308) and in the slot (241) after spending most of his time as a slot or box defender in 2020.

With Marcus Maye (free safety) coming over from the Jets, Mathieu may spend most of his time as a roaming ‘robber’ defender underneath for the Saints. Oddly enough, Mathieu’s former Chiefs teammate, Daniel Sorenson, also signed with the Saints this offseason, which means the two may share the field again often in 2022 (possibly to Mathieu’s chagrin).

As a team in flux with the departure of head coach Sean Payton retiring, free safety Marcus Williams leaving for Baltimore, and more, Mathieu’s veteran leadership may prove as useful as his play this year.

97. Allen Robinson IIAllen Robinson — WR, Los Angeles Rams (Last year: 77)

Taking over Odell Beckham Jr.’s role last season as the Rams’ new X-receiver, the big-bodied Robinson (6-foot-2, 220 pounds) should see a plethora of red-zone targets with defenses likely giving Cooper Kupp major attention.

Robinson turns 29 in a few weeks, so there’s still ample time for him to produce a couple high-level seasons, if he is to integrate successfully into the Rams offense.

He missed five games last year with the Bears and garnered just 38 catches for 410 receiving yards and one score. The disappointing campaign came after two straight years of solid play in, where he caught 200 passes.

Robinson has produced three great seasons over the last seven years despite being part of some of the worst quarterback situations and overall displays of offensive ineptitude. What he lacks in separation, he makes up for with the ability to out-muscle receivers with his physicality and athleticism to come down with the football.

In Los Angeles with Matthew Stafford and Sean McVay, Robinson will get his first shot with one of the NFL’s best offenses in terms of personnel, coaching and scheme.

96. Brian Burns Brian Burns— EDGE, Carolina Panthers (Last year: NR)

After three seasons of promising play to begin his career, Brian Burns is poised for a monster Year 4 as a stand-up EDGE defender in the Panthers’ ‘multiple’ defensive scheme.

“Rare athlete,” an NFC scout told ESPN.

“Can be deployed any way in any scheme, and you have to know where he is. Can cover better than some stack linebackers. Commands attention every down for where he lines up.”

The quote is telling of Burns’ perfect fit into a unique multiple defensive scheme that utilizes both 4-3 and 3-4-style tendencies. As the Panthers mix and match up front, Burns is able to slide in as a strong-side edge-setter or weak-side pass rusher who is even capable of playing in shallow zones from time to time.

The 24-year-old former first-round pick has racked up back-to-back 9-sack seasons, but should reach double digits in that category in 2022.

95. Austin EkelerAustin Ekeler — RB, Los Angeles Chargers (Last year: NR)

Ekeler is one of the best multi-purpose backs and overall playmakers in the game today.

He’s a shifty, quick back who excels as a receiver, yet, with his stocky frame and low-to-the-ground rushing style, also adds elements of power and explosiveness to form a unique blend of player.

His 20 total touchdowns last season (12 rushing, eight receiving) tied Jonathan Taylor for the NFL’s best mark in 2021, as there have been just five 20-touchdown seasons in the league since 2009.

In the passing game specifically, Ekeler has proved his worth among the game’s best at his position. In the past three seasons, he leads all running backs in catches (216), receiving yards (2,043), receiving touchdowns (18) and YAC+ (+2.3), which is ‘yards after catch over expectation.’

Although Ekeler excels in the screen game and by running routes out of the backfield, he’s among the few backs in the league that can also play on the line of scrimmage as a pure receiver at times (think: Christian McCaffrey, Alvin Kamara, Aaron Jones, etc.).

As we approach the frenzy of Fantasy Football draft season, it’s also worth nothing Ekeler has been ranked in the top five of many preseason Fantasy rankings, including being slotted third by PFF, behind just Jonathan Taylor (a consensus No. 1) and Derrick Henry (a fantasy legend).

Lastly, although it doesn’t help or affect his ranking here, Ekeler is one of the most hard-working and humble players in the league. A bit of bragging/name dropping here on my end, but in my work as a producer/writer/researcher on the show Fair Game with Kristine Leahy for FS1 (2018-2020), Ekeler joined our show in the offseason prior to his breakout 2019 campaign, and he was one of the nicest and most delightful athletes/celebrities to work with. He introduced himself to everyone on staff (cameramen, interns, etc.) and was a pleasure to work with. Bravo, Austin! A great person and football player.

94. Jaylen Waddle Jaylen Waddle — WR, Miami Dolphins (Last year: NR)

Last season, Jaylen Waddle made immediate strides at the pro level, showing early returns of what the Dolphins expected when they drafted him No. 6 overall in 2021.

Working within an inconsistent offense, the rookie caught 104 balls for 1,015 yards.

He can thrive as both a high-volume option underneath with game-breaking yards-after-catch potential, or as a speedy downfield threat, particularly on play-action, long crossers in the Kyle Shanahan-style scheme that new Miami head coach Mike McDaniel is bringing over.

As is also the case with Tyreek Hill when you get to his section — there is a lot riding on Tua Tagovailoa’s ability to throw the ball accurately downfield, but regardless of Tua’s performance, Waddle can thrive on schemed touches on pre-snap motion (a la Deebo Samuel) and also on screens.

Bottom line — Dolphins should look for ways to give Jaylen Waddle the football. They will.

93. Chris GodwinChris Godwin – WR, Tampa Bay Buccaneers (Last year: 66)

After the Buccaneers slapped the franchise tag on him for a second consecutive offseason, the team and Godwin moved quickly to agree on a three-year, $60 million deal with $40 million guaranteed.

Last season, he received a career-high 127 targets from Tom Brady and produced 1,103 receiving yards and six touchdowns on 98 catches (102 touches) in 14 games. An ACL tear ended his 2021 campaign, meaning he either won’t be ready, or won’t be 100% for Week 1, but when healthy, he’s one of the tougher Z/slot hybrid receivers in the league. His inside-outside versatility is complimented by his beefier frame (6-foot-1, 208 pounds) for his position. Yet, he’s as fast and quick as his peers with lighter frames.

92. Amari Cooper Amari Cooper – WR, Cleveland Browns (Last year: 83)

Following the best two-year stretch of his career, Amari Cooper’s production dipped some in 2021 in Dallas. In the offseason he was dealt to Cleveland.

Entering his eighth season, Cooper is still just 28 years old.

He’s capable of another phenomenal two-year stretch in Cleveland, where his route-runninng, speed and physical frame (6-foot-1, 210 pound) should allow him to excel on downfield crossing routes in Kevin Stefanski’s Shanahan-ish offensive scheme, regardless of who is at quarterback.

Where Cooper really shines is at the top of the route, where he’s able to leave defenders in the dust with his superb cutting ability (see above).

Seeing as Cleveland is equipped with a dangerous rushing attack featuring Nick Chubb and a top tier offensive line, Cooper should thrive on play-action shots this season.

91.Xavien HowardXavien Howard – CB, Miami Dolphins (Last year: 42)

Xavien Howard remains one of the most volatile Top 100 players on my list in terms of season-to-season, up-and-down movement in my rankings, but he also remains one of the best man-coverage and ball-hawking cornerbacks in the league heading into 2022.

His 2020 season was a career year, as he totaled 10 interceptions and was PFF‘s second-graded cornerback that season. His numbers dipped a bit in 2021 (5 INTs, PFF‘s 24th-graded CB), but at just 29 years old heading into this season, Miami made the wise move to lock up a top player at an important position with a lucrative five-year extension in April.

At 6-foot-1, 203 pounds, Howard uses his physicality and tenacity to win battles versus some of the league’s better pass catchers, which is as important as a non-QB role can get in an AFC crowded with top-end receiving talent.

90. Joe Mixon  Joe Mixon — RB, Cincinnati Bengals (Last year: NR)

With the Bengals sporting an improved offensive line in 2022 via offseason moves, look for another big season from Joe Mixon, who is coming off a career year in 2021 for the reigning AFC champions.

Mixon was third in the NFL in carries (292), rushing yards (1,205) and rushing touchdowns (13) in 2021, while ranking second in rushing yards after contact (1,089). What’s more impressive is that Mixon often created his own rushing lanes via cutbacks and superb ball carrier vision, as the Bengals allowed a league-worst mark in ‘rushing attempts contacted in the backfield’ (52%).

“Mixon produces regardless of O-line play,” a NFC executive told ESPN. He will be key for them this year because they can’t let Burrow get hit as much.”

An AFC executive also described Mixon as a “complete back” who has always had the “explosive component.”

Heading into Year 2 under Bengals Run Game Coordinator (and O-line coach) Frank Pollack’s ‘wide zone’ rushing scheme, there’s a chance Mixon produces even better numbers this season.

89. Antoine Winfield Jr.Antoine Winfield Jr. — S, Tampa Bay Buccaneers (Last year: NR)

Winfield Jr. took a big leap in Year 2 patrolling the deep part of the field for the Buccaneers.

He was PFF‘s second-highest graded safety (89.5 grade) overall, and excelled in all facets of play compared to his peers. Among safeties, PFF graded him fourth in coverage (87.6), third in run defense (88.3) and fourth in pass rush as a blitzer (80.3).

He spent some time in the box and as a slot defender, and his 88.1 PFF grade in the slot (third among safeties in 2021), and 73.2 passer rating allowed in coverage speaks to his ability to play man coverage when needed.

Lastly, his 676 coverage snaps without allowing a touchdown gives Tampa Bay head coach Todd Bowles reassurance that he can dial up blitzes and unleash his roaming cover men underneath, including linebackers Devin White and Lavonte David, and newcomer veteran safety/nickel back/cornerback combo defender Logan Ryan.

If they’re able to sign him long-term as his rookie deal winds down, Winfield Jr. should be a franchise cornerstone for the Bucs throughout the decade.

88. Minkah Fitzpatrick Minkah Fitzpatrick – S, Pittsburgh Steelers (Last year: 44) 

Minkah Fitzpatrick’s first two seasons in Pittsburgh were an example of top-end safety play.

Mostly operating as a free safety, with some work in the slot as a man-coverage defender, Fitzpatrick fits the mold of a versatile playmaker in the backend to defend high-octane passing games.

“Above the neck game — he can play strong and free safety and has range,” an NFC exec told ESPN. “Started for Miami as an outside corner as a rookie. How many safeties can handle that?”

He struggled some last season, but a bounce-back year for the defensive-led Steelers is very much expected.

87. Marcus WilliamsMarcus Williams — S, Baltimore Ravens (Last year: NR)

After five seasons with the Saints, the Ravens snagged Marcus Williams on a five-year, $70 million deal to solidify the backend of their defense.

“Once he gets going, he has the best range in the league,” an AFC defensive coach told ESPN. “Closing on the ball, he’s ridiculously good.”

“One of the better eye manipulators,” an NFL coordinator told ESPN . “He’s in a battle with the quarterback, and if you slip, he’s coming for the ball.”

The praise almost reminds me of former Raven Ed reed, who is widely known as the best free safety in NFL history.

The Ravens are one of the smartest and most calculated franchises in all of modern day sports. When they make a splash free agent signing, everyone should take notice.

Baltimore has long been a beacon of solid defensive football, particularly at the safety position. In addition to Reed, Baltimore has also had stints by Eric Weddle and all-time great Earl Thomas for a brief spell. Here, they’re hoping Williams becomes a franchise cornerstone for a new era.

This year, Baltimore should be among the league leaders in three-safety formations with athletic rookie first-round pick Kyle Hamilton playing close to the line of scrimmage as a linebacker/box safety hybrid, Chuck Clark manning the strong safety position as a ‘robber’ and man-coverage operator on tight ends, and Williams playing deep as a center fielder.

86.Terry McLaurinTerry McLaurin – WR, Washington Commanders (Last year: 74)

McLaurin followed up a 1,118-yard receiving campaign in 2020 with a 77-catch, 1,053-yard performance in 2021, along with five receiving touchdowns.

He’s a natural talent at receiver, utilizing his speed, quickness and elite hands to generate separation, and if not, come down with the football over a defender.

Since coming into the league in 2019, he leads the NFL in contested catches (26).

The Commanders offense will be a unit in flux this season under new quarterback Carson Wentz. Antonio Gibson provides a spark at running back, and the team is hopeful rookie second-round pick Jahan Dotson can provide production at the Z-receiver spot, while  veteran Curtis Samuel can produce as a do-it-all force underneath as a pre-snap motion chess piece.

But none of that is a guarantee, leaving McLaurin as virtually the only proven receiving option for Wentz in Washington. He’s been thrown the football 264 times the last two years, and he should see the ball early and often once more in 2022.

85. J.C. Jackson  J.C. Jackson — CB, Los Angeles Chargers (Last year: NR)

Playing in a AFC West division ripe with top-end quarterbacks and receiving talent, the Los Angeles Chargers looked to free agency for resources defensively.

J.C. Jackson’s five-year, $82.5 million deal gives the Chargers a legitimate No. 1 cornerback capable of playing man-to-man or zone coverage in Brandon Staley’s two-high zone coverage ‘Quarters’ looks.

Jackson is a man-coverage, playmaking cornerback at heart.

He has the most interceptions (25) in the league since his rookie year in 2018, and his 48.0 passer rating allowed in coverage since 2019 is a NFL-best, as well.

In his final season with the Patriots, Jackson had a career year as the team’s lone top cornerback when Stephon Gilmore was traded to the Carolina Panthers, as he snagged eight interceptions and was graded by PFF as the seventh-best cornerback in football, and fifth-best in coverage.

Jackson is primed for a heavy workload on the perimeter this season, but he’s up to the task.

(Jackson had ankle surgery recently, but is expected to miss just the first game or two of the season).

84. Keenan Allen Keenan Allen – WR, Los Angeles Chargers (Last year: 71)

Even entering his age-30 season, Keenan Allen remains one of the NFL’s very best route runners, on a short list with the likes of Cooper Kupp, Davante Adams and Stefon Diggs.

One of the first iterations of the ‘Big’ slot receiver (possibly the first), Allen makes up for his lack of speed with phenomenal awareness and intuition in his cuts, along with a solid pair of hands and subtle quickness.

He snagged a career-high 106 catches for 1,138 receiving yards and six touchdowns on 157 targets (8th in the NFL) in 2021.

He should produce similar numbers in 2022, as Chargers gunslinging quarterback Justin Herbert will continue looking his way often.

83. Creed Humphrey   Creed Humphrey — C, Kansas City Chiefs (Last year: NR)

The Chiefs hit gold in the second round of last year’s draft when they selected center Creed Humphrey, who should be a physical presence for years in Kansas City.

“We want to be known as one of the most physically dominating lines in the league, and we have the guys who can do it,” Humphrey told the Chiefs’ in-house reporters.

“That’s our entire outlook. When teams play us, we want them to know that they’re playing a physical offensive line that finishes through the whistle. We’re excited to get to work on that.”

As a rookie, Humphrey was PFF‘s top-rated center both in overall play (91.8 grade) and run-blocking (93.1), while also grading third among his peers in pass protection.

As the Chiefs enter a new era of offense with Tyreek Hill in Miami and Travis Kelce aging, the physicality of the interior of the offensive line will increase in importance, seeing as the Chiefs should rely a bit more on inside-zone rushing concepts with Clyde Edwards-Helaire and newcomer Ronald Jones as the passing game )with new receivers) finds a groove.

82. Shaq Mason  Shaq Mason – OG, Tampa Bay Buccaneers (Last year: NR)

After losing starting guards Ali Marpet (retirement) and Alex Cappa (signed with Bengals in free agency) this offseason, the Buccaneers continued their recent aggressive offseason ways by acquiring Tom Brady’s old friend, Shaq Mason, from the Patriots for just a fifth-round pick.

Mason is a 6-foot-1, 310-pound mauler who played college ball at Georgia Tech, in their triple-option-heavy scheme. Since entering the NFL, he’s become one of the he best run-blocking guards in the league.

Since 2016, only Zack Martin has been graded higher by PFF among guards.

Last year, Mason was graded 4th among guards by PFF. Since 2016, PFF has graded him 4th, 4th, 1st (2018), 10th and 6th among his peers, before last season’s mark.

Since signing with the Bucs, Brady has enjoyed the scheme change to a downfield arial attack to an assortment of talented pass catchers. But still, the offense relies heavily on a punishing ground game with Brady under-center to eventually set up their play-action shots.

Mason, 29,  is a perfect fit to open up rushing lanes for Tampa Bay power back Leonard Fournette. He’s primed for another big season up front, and the Bucs badly need it, with starting center Ryan Jensen slated to miss time (maybe the entire season) due to a training camp knee injury, and Tampa’s other projected starting guard, Aaron Stinnie, out for the year with a ACL/MCL tear suffered this preseason.

81.DeAndre HopkinsDeAndre Hopkins – WR, Arizona Cardinals (Last year: 25)

After a phenomenal first season with the Cardinals in 2020 (115 catches, 1,407 receiving yards, 6 TDs), DeAndre Hopkins was limited to just 10 games in 2021 due to a hamstring injury, followed by a MCL tear.

Still, he garnered eight touchdowns and showed glimpses of why he’s been one of the league’s best receivers over the past decade.

It’s always tough determining when a wide receiver will reach the cliff.

As it stands, I have Michael Thomas just off the list just two summers after I rated him as the 10th best player in the NFL.

So as a 30-year-old Hopkins recovers from his knee injury, and serves a six-game suspension to begin the season for violating the league’s performance-enhancing drug policy, this feels like the right place to put him.

You can make the case that he still has the best hands in the NFL.

When he’s on the field, he remains a dangerous threat.

80. Stephon GilmoreStephon Gilmore – CB, Indianapolis Colts (Last year: 41)

In last year’s list, I mentioned Gilmore has a good chance of continuing to be an elite-level cornerback in his early thirties, because his game his game is “less predicated on speed, and more so on press ability, quickness, technique, and physicality with opposing pass catchers.”

That still rings true in 2022, as he enters his age 32-season, but now Gilmore will need to adapt to the Colts’ fast-and-physical zone-coverage style of play.

Gilmore is best used as a man-coverage cornerback, but in Indianapolis, he’ll almost certainly play his fair share of Cover-2, Cover-3 and Cover-4 (Quarters) under head coach Matt Eberflus and defensive coordinator Gus Bradley.

Where Gilmore may be best suited, is in a mix of man and zone-match principles that have him matching receivers in the vicinity of his zone, much like man coverage.

Regardless, the Colts defense will call on him to get physical with press coverage, and Gilmore should still excel there.

The fit of Gilmore in this Indy defense is fascinating.

79. Christian McCaffrey Christian McCaffrey – RB, Carolina Panthers (Last year: 35) 

When healthy, Christian McCaffrey is one of the best offensive playmakers in the NFL. But after playing just three games in 2020, injuries forced him to play in just seven contests in 2021.

But even in just 10 games over the last two seasons, he’s shown — in spurts — just how valuable he is to the Panthers.

Despite a smaller sample size in 2021, McCaffrey ranked 4th in the league last season in yards from scrimmage per game (112.1).

In 2022, the Panthers will likely start Baker Mayfield at quarterback, but the offense will certainly revolve around C-Mac, as long as he’s healthy.

From inside zone rushes, to underneath ‘option’ routes and split-out-wide, pure receiver route-running in the passing game, McCaffrey is still a unique, never-seen-before talent in this league.

Still at just 26 years old, there’s time for him to re-write his career, if he can help provide some durability.

78.Devin WhiteDevin White – LB, Tampa Bay Buccaneers (Last year: 36)

I went with back-to-back Bucs here in these two slots, with athletic linebacker Devin White, a hero in Tampa’s Super Bowl 55 run, dipping a bit in this year’s rankings.

White has never been liked by well-respected analytics sites like PFF, but outside of maybe San Francisco (Fred Warner), Indianapolis (Shaquille Leonard) and maybe still with Bobby Wagner in L.A., you just won’t find that kind of closing speed, explosiveness and instinctual playmaking from the linebacker position. And that’s an essential type of player to have defensively at the second level in the modern day game.

White is also an effective blitzer, tallying 9 sacks in 2020, before offenses were able to account for the skill in 2021. causing that number to drop to 3.5 last season.

What you get with White is an aggressively athletic playmaking linebacker who is fearless versus any opposing offense. Like cornerbacks such as Trevon Diggs and Marcus Peters, you take the good with the bad when it comes to whiffing on a few plays.

In Tampa Bay, White is able to go full throttle in Todd Bowles’ aggressive defensive scheme since fellow linebacker Lavonte David is the more calculated veteran who provides more support in the run game, allowing White to roam.

At just 24 years old entering this season, White has plenty of time to become more consistently efficient.

77. Najee HarrisNajee Harris – RB, Pittsburgh Steelers (Last year: NR)

For decades, many NFL offenses revolved around a punishing ground game led by a do-it-all, ‘bell cow’ running back. In the 2000s, bigger backs such as Corey Dillon, Jamal Lewis, Shaun Alexander, Larry Johnson and others signified team’s affinity for a workhorse-type ball-carrier who could touch the ball 25 or 30 times a game, in every game.

That era led way to a change to smaller, faster running backs, which then led to the passing game becoming vastly more important, like you see today, causing teams to devalue running backs in the open market, and instead choosing for a ‘committee’ approach between Day 2 and Day 3 draft picks, and bargain-level veterans.

Of course, in the 2010s, backs such as Adrian Peterson, and now, Derrick Henry, were and are all-time talents that invoke a bit of nostalgia to earlier eras. But the ‘bellcow’ back had mostly become a thing of the past.

However, in recent seasons, bigger backs such as Jonathan Taylor and Nick Chubb are starting to sprout into top-end ball carriers worthy of a heavy workload each game. As is with fashion, the NFL can often be cyclical.

Najee Harris is in the mold of Henry, Taylor and Chubb as a bell cow back worthy of being the feature presence of a modern-day NFL offense.

Of course, a good-to-great quarterback and above-average passing game is needed to compete for a Super Bowl in present day, but as the Steelers usher in a new era with either rookie Kenny Pickett or veteran Mitchell Trubisky at quarterback, it will be Harris as the featured presence for Pittsburgh’s offense in 2022.

Last season, as a rookie, Harris ranked second in the NFL in carries (307) and fourth in rushing yards (1,200) while not registering a single fumble.

Harris also led all running backs with 74 receptions, showcasing his skills as a do-it-all presence.

Harris has worked hard this offseason to prepare his body for the big season to come. Much of his time has been spent at a gym in Houston co-owned by the previously-mentioned Adrian Peterson (see article in tweet above).

“He’s a big-bodied kid,” Peterson told ESPN‘s Brooke Pyror. “I caught myself a couple times looking at him. I’m like, golly, this boy’s thick. He’s not fat at all. He’s just big-boned. He’s thick and strong, and those big quads. Those big legs and upper body. He’s well-put together. He’s like the perfect dimension for a running back.”

Harris will need to keep his strength for the upcoming season, as he should be relied upon heavily.

Last year, he led all running backs in snaps per game (54.6) and total percentage of offensive snaps (84%) by a wide margin. NFL rushing champion Jonathan Taylor was second in both categories with 42.9 snaps per game, while playing in 69 percent of the Colts’ offensive snaps.

Harris is listed at 6-foot-1, 232 pounds on many sites, which was his weight a year ago before the 2021 season. But he announced he weighed 244 at mandatory mini-camp this past Spring, and plans to play at a heavier weight, but with less fat and more muscle.

Whatever his weight, Harris should be among the league leaders in carries, rushing yards and overall touches in 2022, as he blossoms into the type of star running back many watched for decades before the modern passing game took hold.

76. Pat Surtain IIPatrick Surtain II – CB, Denver Broncos (Last year: NR)

At just 22 years old entering 2022, Patrick Surtain II enters this season as one the game’s brightest young potential stars.

Like any rookie, he had a few minor pains adjusting to the pro game last year, but as the season progressed, the 6-foot-2, 202-pound perimeter cornerback showed why he is the perfect specimen for the modern game.

Playing within an AFC West that has added Davante Adams (Raiders) to a divisional pass-catching group that already features Mike Williams and Keenan Allen with the Chargers, Surtain II will have ample opportunity to shine on big stage and produce what will most likely be a massive Year 2 jump in efficiency and overall play.

Between himself, Texans rookie first-round selection Derek Stingley Jr. (No. 3 overall pick), and Jets rookie first-round pick Ahmad “Sauce” Gardner (No. 4 overall pick), the cornerback position is beginning to produce generational prospects to take the torch from Jalen Ramsey, Stephon Gilmore and others as the 2020’s move along.

75. Corey LinsleyCorey Linsley – C, Los Angeles Chargers (Last year: 85)

At age 31, Corey Linsley enters 2022 as one of the game’s best interior offensive lineman.

After seven seasons with the Green Bay Packers that included a First-team All-Pro berth in 2020, Linsley took to free agency and signed a massive deal with the Chargers in 2021.

He did not disappoint, as he was given Second-team All-Pro honors for his play.

Linsley has been a consistent force for much of his career. PFF has graded him in the top seven among centers in six of his eight seasons in the league, including a career-best two-year stretch over the last two seasons that placed him first among centers in 2021, and second last season (85.7 grade).

In addition to his genius overall play, Linsley’s game can be broken down to showcase how much of a complete interior offensive lineman he is. He ranked first among centers in pass blocking and fifth in run blocking last season.

“I think for what they do, he’s the best center because he’s so smart and instinctive that he makes life easier for Herbert,” a NFL source told ESPN

“He might not be able to overpower like other guards and centers, but his technique is top notch, and you’re going to play a clean game with him offensively.”

As the Chargers look to build up an offensive line that needs to quickly progress for the team to reach the lofty aspirations set out for them, Linsley will help lead a group that features promising young left tackle Rashawn Slater and rookie first-round pick Zion Johnson out of Boston College at right guard.

74.Matt RyanMatt Ryan – QB, Atlanta Falcons (Last year: 56)

After 14 seasons with the Falcons, Matt Ryan, 37, becomes the latest in a string of memorable veteran quarterbacks heading to Indianapolis to pilot a promising team with a solid offensive line, punishing ground game and fast and hungry defense.

With the Tennessee Titans potentially taking a step back, the Colts have potential to win the AFC South, and make a playoff run. A lot of that will depend on Matt Ryan’s ability to elevate a young receiving core that is a bit of a question mark.

But Ryan is capable of propping up an offense, even if his prime years are likely behind him.

His numbers dipped last year as the Falcons struggled through the first true season of what is essentially a tear-it-down, full-on rebuild. But in Indy, Ryan’s still-intact accuracy and solid decision-making should compliment Jonathan Taylor and the running game enough for him to have a moderately-successful campaign in 2022, at least.

73. Jessie Bates III Jessie Bates III – S, Cincinnati Bengals (Last year: 63)

After a breakout 2020 season that saw him earn Second-team All-Pro honors while being graded as PFF‘s top safety, Bates’ play came a bit down to earth in 2021, but he still solidified himself as one of the NFL’s best safeties, particularly in the Bengals’ run to Super Bowl 56.

In the playoffs, Bates deflected six passes and snagged two crucial interceptions.

He plays some in the box and slot but he’s predominantly the Bengals’ free-roaming free safety tasked with tracking the ball. That leads to big plays such as his overtime deflection of a deep Patrick Mahomes pass intended for Tyreek Hill that led to a Bengals interception in Cincinnati’s shocking AFC Championship Game win last January.

Bates is currently under the franchise tag, and is looking for a new deal that would likely come his way from the Bengals, or another team, if he is to have another great season in 2022.

72. Ryan Ramczyk  Ryan Ramczyk  – OT, New Orleans Saints (Last year: 62)

Ramczyk, 28, remains at the top of his game as an elite NFL tackle heading into 2022.

He was PFF‘s top-graded tackle in 2019 and was named an AP All-Pro (first or second team) in three straight seasons from 2018 to 2020.

He had another solid season manning the right tackle spot for the Saints in 2021, leading all tackles in pass block win rate (95%), and continuing his play as one of the league’s most stout run blockers.

With Terron Armstead now in Miami playing left tackle (and his replacement, rookie first-round pick Trevor Penning, missing the start of the season with an injury), Ramczyk’s presence on the right side for New Orleans is as important as ever.

71. Derek CarrDerek Carr – QB, Las Vegas Raiders (Last year: NR)

Heading into Year 1 under new head coach Josh McDaniels, Derek Carr was awarded a three-year, $121.5 million contract extension (with a no trade clause) running through 2025, to remain the Raiders starting quarterback for the immediate future.

In 2022, Carr will operate in a system that traditionally revolves around “heady” play from the quarterback. Pre-snap ability, awareness, decision-making and pinpoint accuracy will be what’s most important for Carr this season.

I view Carr as just a Top-12 to Top-15 quarterback overall (which is right around where PFF has graded him over the past three years), but also as a Top-5 passer.

He throws one of the league’s most beautiful footballs, particularly downfield.

This season, I expect Carr to thrive under McDaniels’ tutelage, while passing to one of the league’s very best receiving cores (Davante Adams, Hunter Renfrow, Darren Waller).

The implementation of a power rushing attack under running back Josh Jacobs (Raiders also added former Patriots lead-blocking fullback Jakob Johnson) should also ease some of the burden Carr has usually carried in past seasons in Las Vegas wins and losses.

Las Vegas will operate under what may be the best division in football this season in the AFC West. And under McDaniels, Carr and a talented overall roster, I expect the Raiders to be right in the thick of things when it comes to the division crown.

70. Justin SimmonsJustin Simmons – S, Denver Broncos (Last year: 78)

Justin Simmons is one of the NFL’s best safeties, and a perfect example of versatility needed in that position in an evolving league equipped with high-octane passing games.

At 6-foot-2, 202 pounds, Simmons is built both like a rangy safety and perimeter cornerback. He plays most of his snaps as a deep free safety, but at times he also play in the box, and in man coverage in the slot.

“He can play deep in coverage, helps with the run and he can cover in man coverage on a tight end or a running back,” an AFC scout told ESPN. “He’s got the ideal range and size to handle everything.”

“If you’re judging safety play by who’s the most complete and checks the most boxes, he’s that guy for me,” an AFC defensive coach said of Simmons, in a piece that had NFL execs, coaches and scouts ranking him as the league’s top safety heading into this season.

Simmons’ best season, by PFF‘s standards, remains 2019, where he was graded as the NFL’s second best safety and was named Second-team All-Pro. But last season, he still put on a show, grabbing five interceptions (tied for league lead among safeties) and swatting away 12 passes (tied for second among safeties), while being named Second-team All-Pro once more. He also leads all safeties with 53.5 ‘disrupted dropbacks’ (interceptions, pass breakups, sacks) over the last three years.

He’ll turn 29 this November, putting him squarely in the prime of his career, where he’ll help lead a Broncos team with loftier expectations under new quarterback Russell Wilson.

69. DeMarcus Lawrence DeMarcus Lawrence – EDGE, Dallas Cowboys (Last year: 84)

DeMarcus Lawrence enters his age-30 season as a player who is only getting better.

Earlier in his career, he was seen as mostly a pass rusher, but Lawrence has turned into a complete EDGE defender in recent seasons.

He was the top-graded EDGE in run defense last season by PFF (92.5), and despite a dip in sack numbers in the past few seasons, he’s still been rated as the fourth-best overall EDGE defender in the game both in 2020 and 2021.

As Micah Parsons ascends as a superstar linebacker/EDGE hybrid for Dallas, Lawrence will continue to assist as a veteran co-anchor of the Cowboys’ quickly-improving defensive front seven.

 

68. Trey Hendrickson Trey Hendrickson – EDGE, Cincinnati Bengals (Last year: NR)

Last year, Trey Hendrickson surprised many by becoming one of the few high-priced free agents in recent years to make an immediate, worthy impact on his new team.

He followed up a 13.5-sack season with the Saints in 2020 with a 14-sack campaign last year with the Bengals after signing a four-year, $60 million deal with Cincinnati in the 2021 offseason.

He was especially productive in the playoffs, where he upped his game and became an absolute menace as a pass rusher, particularly in the AFC title game comeback win in Kansas City.

“Instinctive, tough and plays his ass off,” an NFC executive told ESPN. “Has rush savvy.”

67. DK MetcalfD.K. Metcalf – WR, Seattle Seahawks (Last year: 30)

He scored a career-high 12 touchdowns last year, but the rest of his numbers were down as the Seahawks suffered through a rough 2021 campaign with a mildly disgruntled Russell Wilson at quarterback.

When Seattle finally obliged Wilson’s trade request this offseason, it was worth wondering whether or not the Seahawks would deal Metcalf before a contract year to further accelerate the deep rebuild.

Instead, Seattle gave him a three-year, $72 million extension ($58.2 million guaranteed) to keep him in the northwest for the foreseeable future.

As a 6-foot-4, 235-pound receiver who runs a 4.33 40-yard dash with a 40.5-inch vertical leap, he remains one of the most freakish athletes the league has ever seen.

Heading into 2022, and still just 24 years old, he’s still arguably the most dangerous perimeter offensive threat from a physical standpoint.

In 2023, there’s a chance one of the top college QB prospects of this season — Bryce Young (Alabama), C.J. Stroud (Ohio State) — is throwing him passes in Seattle, but for this year, it’ll most likely be Drew Lock or Geno Smith.

That limits Metcalf’s projected output this season, but his value as a ridiculous talent remains intact.

66.Alvin Kamara Alvin Kamara – RB, New Orleans Saints (Last year: 32)

Since 2017, no running back has scored more touchdowns (68), received more targets (476) or hauled in more receptions (373) than Alvin Kamara.

As a back who can rush the football inside, outside and line up as an actual wide receiver, he’s a matchup nightmare for defenses.

The two-time All-Pro’s play wasn’t up-to-par with his recent excellence last year (career-worst 3.7 yards per carry), but he should be in line for a bounce-back campaign this season. That is, if he’s available. There’s a chance Kamara faces some discipline this season for an alleged assault.

65. Joe Thuney Joe Thuney – OG, Kansas City Chiefs (Last year: 70)

Since coming into the league in 2016, Joe Thuney has started and played in every game (including playoffs) for the Patriots (2016-2020) and Chiefs (2021).

His durability is matched only by his pass blocking.

He was PFF‘s highest-graded pass-blocking offensive lineman (90.5 grade) in 2022, and he also led all guards in pass block win rate (96.6%), making good on the top-end contract Kansas City signed him to in the 2021 offseason.

Thuney should only improve in Year 2 with the Chiefs.

64. Wyatt Teller Wyatt Teller — OG, Cleveland Browns (Last year: 59)

After a breakout 2020 season that saw him grade out as the top offensive lineman in run blocking and overall play by PFF, Wyatt Teller backed that up with yet another Second-team All-Pro season in which PFF graded him as the league’s fifth-best guard in overall play, and fourth-best guard in run blocking.

His effot halfway through last season earned him a four-year, $56.8 million contract extension from Cleveland.

The 6-foot-4, 314-pound mammoth is a ferocious run blocker equipped with quickness and athleticism for the Browns’ powerful outside-zone rushing attack under head coach Kevin Stefanski.

He’s also an improving pass blocker, which is a needed skill for the Browns’ play-action passing concepts revolving around outside zone runs.

63. Joel Bitonio  Joel Bitonio — OG, Cleveland Browns (Last year: NR)

The run of guards continues with yet the other starting guard in Cleveland.

At 6-foot-4, 320 pounds, Joel Bitonio is almost identical in size to Wyatt Teller. And although Teller is naturally a bit of a better run blocker, Bitonio is the more complete overall offensive lineman.

Bitonio was actually graded as the best guard in the NFL in run blocking (92.5 grade) and overall play (93.6) last season, and was named First-team All-Pro after three straight seasons of being named Second-team All-Pro. He also has went the last five season without missing a game.

“Rare combo of quickness, pull ability, one-on-one pass pro ability and power,” an NFL personnel director told ESPN. “Excellent second-level run-blocker. Does everything at a high level.”

The 30-year-old is as complete as a guard there is right now after Quenton Nelson. I was wrong to leave him in the first 25 players off my list last season. I expect him to compete for another All-Pro honor in 2022.

62. Dalvin Cook  Dalvin Cook – RB, Minnesota Vikings (Last year: 38)

He missed four games last year, and was mostly held out of the end zone (six touchdowns) compared to the two seasons prior (30 TDs), but he’s still one of the most dangerous cutback, outside-zone rushers in the league.

He ran for 1,159 rushing yards in 13 games while averaging 4.7 yards per carry in 2021. In fact, he’s averaged 4.7 yards per carry throughout his five-season career to this point. He was also second in the league among running backs in yards per contact (779) last season.

In 2022, under new head coach Kevin O’Connell, Cook may need to adjust slightly to a Sean McVay-style, Shanahan-y system.

“He’s great and can get even better with discipline as a runner and growing as a third-down receiver,” a NFL coach told ESPN of Cook.

“I think he’ll show a more all-around game in a new offense.”

The offense won’t change too much from the multi-tight end, power zone-rushing scheme his former offensive coordinator-turned Browns head coach Kevin Stefanski left behind three seasons ago.

There will still be a bevy of zone-rushing opportunities in which Cook will thrive in, meaning he should produce as a top-end running back if he can stay healthy.

61. Bobby Wagner  Bobby Wagner – LB, Los Angeles Rams (Last year: 27)

Bobby Wagner, 32, took a slight step back last season with a Seahawks team that wasn’t up to snuff.

But do you know what a step back means in Wagner’s world? It’s going from being PFF‘s second-highest graded linebacker and being named First-team All-Pro for the fifth year in a row in 2020, to being named Second-team All-Pro as the 15th-highest graded linebacker in the game (by PFF).

Translation: Wagner is still damn good.

After the Seahawks granted his release, he signed a five-year, $50 million deal (up to $65 million with incentives) with the Los Angeles Rams.

The deal is a classic Rams-style, new-age contract that won’t likely see him play there through 2026, but for this season, Wagner should bring most of his skillset to a Rams defense anchored by Aaron Donald and Jalen Ramsey.

Now, they add a second-level defensive star to form a trio.

Wagner still has the range and intuition to defend the pass, and he’s actually shown that he’s continually improving in run defense in his later years.

Considering the wear and tear — he’s played more snaps (6,047) and has more tackles (905) than any NFL defensive player since 2016 — his streak of eight consecutive years of being named an All-Pro may be in jeopardy, but he should still provide the Rams with excellent linebacker play.

60. David Bakhtiari David Bakhtiari – OT, Green Bay Packers (Last year: 34)

His string of five consecutive seasons of being named an All-Pro ended in 2021 due to a late-2020 season ACL tear that caused him to miss every game but the Packers’ Week 18 contest versus the Detroit Lions (he played 18 snaps).

When healthy, he’s the linchpin of the Packers’ offensive line, Aaron Rodgers’ blindside protector at left tackle, and one of the best offensive lineman in the game.

The soon-to-be 31-year-old seems healthy and ready to go for 2022, which is a great sign for Green Bay’s chances in what looks to be an up-for-grabs NFC this season.

59. Cameron JordanCameron Jordan – EDGE, New Orleans Saints (Last year: 54)

Last year, at age 32, Cameron Jordan produced his second-best career single-season sack total (12.5), while PFF graded him as the third-best run-defending EDGE in the game. He also topped all EDGE defenders in run-stop win rate (33.5%), and was second among his positional peers in ‘disrupted dropbacks’ (22.5).

To summarize — Jordan was virtually better in all facets of his game compared to the previous year.

Recently, he’s had double digit sacks in four of his last five seasons, and has been graded as a Top-10 EDGE defender by PFF in each of the last six seasons.

In 2022, Jordan should still command double teams at age 33, which is highly impressive. This should allow the younger Marcus Davenport to feast in 1-on-1 battles on the opposite edge of the Saints’ defensive front.

58. Jonathan Allen Jonathan Allen – DI, Washington Commanders (Last year: NR)

After spending the first four seasons of his career as solid run defender with little fanfare, Jonathan Allen finally broke through in Year 5.

The former No. 17 overall pick (2017) blossomed into one of the league’s best overall interior pass rushers last season, finishing second among defensive tackles in QB pressures (34) and sacks (9), and third in both PFF‘s pass rush grade (90.9) and overall grade (84.8) for interior defenders.

Over the last few years, Allen has added a bevy of pass rush moves to get to the quarterback, but his main strength continues to be his power as a 6-foot-3, 300-pound bully in the middle.

Playing next to a fellow former Alabama first-round pick (2018) in Daron Payne, and with Montez Sweat (2019 first-round pick) and the mighty Chase Young (No. 2 overall pick in 2020) on the edges outside (Young is slated to miss at least the first four games of the season on PUP), Washington has a defensive front (LB Jamin Davis was a 2021 first-rounder) littered with talented young players with potential.

57. Rashawn Slater Rashawn Slater – OT, Los Angeles Chargers (Last year: NR)

In Corey Linsley’s blurb above, we mentioned the Chargers’ efforts to build up a shaky offensive line over the last two seasons by drafting Boston College guard Zion Johnson in Round 1 of this past draft, and signing Linsley and drafting Rashawn Slater in the first round in 2021.

Last year as a rookie, Slater exceeded expectations immediately as a No. 13 overall pick, earning Second-team All-Pro honors.

As the Chargers ascend from just a talented roster with a talented quarterback, to a complete roster worthy of a Super Bowl run, it’ll become increasingly apparent just how important it was for the Chargers to hit on their pick of Slater last year.

Just as he did at left tackle last season, expect Slater to protect Justin Herbert’s blind side like a seasoned pro, for years to come.

56. Darren Waller Darren Waller — TE, Las Vegas Raiders (Last year: 57)

Waller’s transition from practice squad wide receiver earlier in his career, to Top-5 NFL tight end, is one of the NFL’s best stories. The off-field hardship he was able to overcome during this stretch just further shows how mentally tough he is.

Still, despite the switch to a monstrous build of 6-foot-6, 255 pounds, Waller is an athletic play-making pass catcher at heart.

Considering new head coach Josh McDaniels’ past Patriots schemes revolving around tight ends who can catch and block in-line (think: Rob Gronkowski), it’s worth wondering where Waller will fit in Las Vegas in 2022.

But good news is, Waller actually repped out at 401 inline snaps in 2021, compared to 147 in the slot, and 129 snaps out wide. He may be unspectacular as a blocker, but he seems at least capable at the skill.

He missed six games last season, causing his numbers to dip pretty dramatically, but if he can stay on the field, he’s still one of the more versatile matchup-dominating weapons on offense in the NFL.

55. A.J. Brown  A.J. Brown – WR, Philadelphia Eagles (Last year: 37)

He began his career with two phenomenal seasons in Tennesee before a chest injury forced him to miss a few games last year, limiting him some in the volume stats department. Still, PFF graded him as a top-5 receiver in receiving and overall play.

Then, seemingly unhappy with his second contract negotiations (or lack thereof), or the Titans, or both, Brown was dealt to the Eagles on draft day for the No. 18 overall pick (Tennessee also sent Philadelphia a third-round pick). Brown subsequently signed a four-year, $100 million extension ($57 new guaranteed) shortly after.

When at his best, Brown is perhaps the best YAC (yards after contact) receiver in the league due to his 6-foot-1, 226-pound frame and ability to break tackles on posts, seams and in-breaking routes in the play-action passing game.

Will Jalen Hurts and the Eagles, predominantly a shotgun offense, get him the ball in the same way? Will Brown line up as a “Big” slot often, or will he spend almost all of his time on the perimeter with his new squad?

Wherever he lines up, he should thrive, as he’ll look to prove himself further with a new squad. There may be some growing pains, but with other talented pass-catchers (DeVonta Smith, Dallas Goedert) in the Philly offense, there should be enough matchups for Brown to exploit all over the field.

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

Derwin James is back on the list after just missing the cut last season. I had him at No. 53 in my 2020 list, and No. 30 the season before.

Let’s face it, when healthy, Derwin James is one of the more versatile players in the entire league.

He can function as a free safety, a strong safety, a psuedo-linebacker in the box (who covers and blitzes), or as a man-coverage defender in the slot. He can cover big receivers, fast receivers, shifty receivers, athletic tight ends or running backs in the passing game. He’s the epitome of the new-age type of safety that we’re beginning to see like Ravens 2022 first-round pick Kyle Hamilton.

But health is a major factor in how the rest of James’ career will play out.

In 2021, James was again healthy, earning First-team All-Pro honors for a second time after missing all of 2020 to heal from a torn meniscus.

During this preseason, the Chargers rewarded James, 26, by making him the highest-paid safety in NFL history with a four-year, $76.4 million extension ($42 million in guaranteed), showcasing their faith in a potential franchise cornerstone on a uber-talented roster.

53. Vita VeaVita Vea – DI, Tampa Bay Buccaneers (Last year: 86)

Vea enters 2022 as the NFL’s top nose tackle, and also one of the very best 3-4-style defensive tackles. His ability to stuff the run by two-gapping and beating double teams in the run game is top level. And despite his massive size (6-foot-4, 347 pounds), Vea is more than just a “push-the-pile” type of pass rusher. He’s a legitimate threat as an athletic interior rusher who can bulldoze his way to the quarterback.

“The way he can manhandle centers and can also play on third down and be effective when fresh really impresses me,” an NFC exec told ESPN. “I wouldn’t want to go against him.”

“He’s a top guy for me, and it’s not that close,” an NFL scouting coordinator said to ESPN. “He’s got raw power that you can’t teach.”

Vea is a rare three-down player for his size. He can also line up in different positions and can play different techniques along the Buccaneers’ defensive front.

His play over the first four years of his career earned him a four-year, $73 million extension with the Bucs this past January, and his best is likely yet to come.

52.Chase Young Chase Young – EDGE, Washington Football Team (Last year: 24)

The 2020 NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year followed up his fantastic Year 1 campaign with a disappointing Year 2 effort in which he registered just 1.5 sacks in nine games before suffering an ACL tear that caused him to miss the rest of the season, and has him on Reserve/PUP (out for at least first four games of regular season) to begin this season.

When healthy and motivated, the former No. 2 overall pick is a rare breed of at the EDGE position. His combination of athleticism, overall talent, potential, and size puts him in an elite group of peers that basically only includes Myles Garrett and the Bosa brothers.

Playing in a defensive front seven littered with first-round picks, including a member on this list in the aforementioned Jonathan Allen, Young will have ample opportunity for a bounce-back campaign if he can return to the field by Halloween.

I’m doing a little bit of projecting here based off his potential talent, and his rookie season, but Young should improve when he suits back up.

51. Mark Andrews Mark Andrews – TE, Baltimore Ravens (Last year: NR)  

Andrews has been one of the game’s best tight ends for the past two to three seasons, but it was this past season, Year 4 for him, where he enjoyed a Kool-Aid Man-busting-through-the-wall-type breakout season.

Last season, he led all tight ends in targets (153), receiving yards (1,361), and PFF grade (91.5), and he also was tied for first among his position mates in receiving scores (9).

He’s Lamar Jackson’s favorite target, and is a key part in the Ravens’ unique offense involving heavy packages with new-age wrinkles with their electric quarterback.

PFF graded him third among tight ends in receiving and run-blocking. He’s a complete package at the position.

With athletic rookie receiving tight end Isaiah Likely (fourth-round pick) also in the fold, the Ravens would be wise to pair the two on the field for ample snaps. They could even inlcude blocking bullies Nick Boyle and Pat Ricard on the field with them. Regardless, Andrews should dominate once more this year as one of the game’s best true Y-tight ends, along with George Kittle.

50.Marlon HumphreyMarlon Humphrey – CB, Baltimore Ravens (Last year: 45)

Last year was a bit of a down year for the Ravens’ top cornerback. But really, that was a microcosm of the 2021 Baltimore Ravens in general.

Baltimore began the season 8-3 before Lamar Jackson and many others, including Humphrey (torn pectoral muscle), went down with injuries. The Ravens hung tough in several games down the stretch (they lost five games by a combined eight points (!), with one game going to OT), but ultimately finished the year on a six-game losing streak, finishing 8-9.

What was more odd than the losing streak for one of the most well-run franchises in North American sport, was Baltimore’s putrid rating in one of the NFL’s most renowned efficiency metrics — Football Outsiders‘ DVOA.

Baltimore ranked 28th in defensive DVOA, their second-worst mark in franchise history. They also were dead last in passing yards per game allowed (278.9), which is shocking.

Baltimore fired defensive coordinator Don “Wink” Martindale (now NYG defensive coordinator) after the season, but I think it’s safe to say last year was an incredibly-unlucky, aberration of season for the Ravens.

Marlon Humphrey, who was on pace for a down year even before his injury, is poised for a major bounce-back campaign in 2022, much like his team.

With fellow Top 100 list teammate Marcus Williams now in the fold as a patrolling, deep safety, Humphrey should feel even more comfortable in man-coverage assignments in Cover-1, as well as Cover-3 looks.

49. Cameron Heyward  Cameron Heyward – DI, Pittsburgh Steelers (Last year: 55)

I say it just about every year on this list, but considering former Patriots great Richard Seymour was elected to the Pro Football Hall of Fame last month, I will mention it again — Cameron Heyward is the 2010s version of Richard Seymour. He really is the closest thing as a massive-yet-athletic interior presence who can dominate either playing 3-4-style defensive end or shades of a 4-3-style defensive tackle.

But as I write my third list of the 2020s, a new decade, Heyward somehow seems to be improving with age.

Last year, at age 32, he played in every game, registering career highs in run stuffs (13) and passes defended (9), and notching 10 sacks while grading out as the second-best interior defender by PFF for the second time in three seasons, and grading first among his peers in run defense (90.0 PFF grade).

It was the third time in the last five seasons that he’s been named a First-team All-Pro.

He’ll have to slow down at some point, but just like Cameron Jordan on this list (and perhaps J.J. Watt, when healthy), Heyward continually defies the odds as an elderly versatile defensive lineman.

48. Jaire AlexanderJaire Alexander – CB, Green Bay Packers (Last year: 26)

He was PFF‘s top-graded cornerback in pass coverage and overall play in 2020, while also being named a First-team All-Pro. Last season, a shoulder injury in Week 4 caused him to miss the rest of the regular season, before he returned in the playoffs for the Packers’ home loss to the 49ers.

Still, the Packers are confident enough in him that they gave him a four-year, $84 million extension, making him the highest-paid cornerback in the NFL.

He’s one of the most technical stars in the NFL, playing the cornerback position as crisp as it can be done, similarly to a top-end route-running receiver.

“He’s urgent, aggressive in coverage, great transition speed and change of direction,” an NFL personnel evaluator told ESPN.

“Has great backfield vision in zone coverage. Ball skills. Plays with a physical element.”

“He’s just so smooth in everything he does,” an AFC executive said to ESPN. “How he plays should be taught.”

As Rodgers has aged, Green Bay has built up one of the NFL’s best defenses in the past year or two, even to the detriment of the offense (Davante Adams departure). Alexander is one of the key pieces of the defense that the Packers front office seems to be betting on to get Green Bay Bay back to the Super Bowl.

47. Tristan WirfsTristan Wirfs – OT, Tampa Bay Buccaneers (Last year: NR)

Being a former Iowa Hawkeye offensive lineman selected in the first round (No. 13 overall pick in 2020), it’s no surprise Tristan Wirfs is already a succesfful offensive lineman, but it’s the degree of success, and after just two seasons, that is highly impressive.

At just 23-years-old, and coming off a First-team All-Pro season, Wirfs is one of the league’s bright, young superstars.

He’s a bit better at pass blocking than run blocking, but is good enough at the latter that he’ll likely become dominant at that as well.

At 6-foot-5, 320 pounds, Wirfs is uber-athletic.

There’s a video of him that went around during the 2020 NFL Draft lead-up, of him jumping out of a pool and landing on his feet, which is insanity for his size.

In an offense that just saw Tom Brady lead at age 44, it’s good to know that Wirfs is protecting him from monstrous edge rushers up front as the Bucs sturdy right tackle.

He’s been battling an oblique injury in training camp, but should be good to go in Week 1.

46. Khalil Mack Khalil Mack – EDGE, Los Angeles Chargers (Last year: 14)

There’s fair concern whether or not 31-year-old Khalil Mack will be close to the same player with the Chargers this year.

He’s coming off of season-ending foot surgery that caused him to miss nine games last season in a campaign in which PFF graded him outside the top six EDGE defenders for just the second time in his eight-year career.

But playing opposite Joey Bosa this season after being traded to the Chargers, there’s now opportunity for one more monster season for the four-time All-Pro. This talented Chargers need him to flourish if they are to reach their lofty goals for this season, and head coach Brandon Staley, Mack’s outside linebackers coach in his first year with the Bears, will know exactly how to utilize him.

45. Von Miller Von Miller – EDGE, Buffalo Bills (Last year: 67)

It had been a few seasons since we had seen Von Miller produce like a top-end edge rusher, but after he was dealt to the eventual Super Bowl champion Los Angeles Rams in midseason, he put on another Hall-of-Fame-worthy postseason performance with four sacks down the stretch of the Rams’ title run.

He was efficiently great all season long last year, with PFF grading him third among all EDGE defenders (second in run defense, first in pass coverage).

Normally known for his speed demon type flash and bend ass a pass rusher, Miller was also stout against the run last year.

This offseason, Miller, 33, joined this year’s Super Bowl favorite, the Buffalo Bills, on a fluffed-up six-year, $120 million deal (can essentially be just three years and $52 million for Buffalo).

The Bills are truly going all-in for this next season or two, and Miller provides them with an all-time talent on the outside to help make some of the many talented quarterbacks in the AFC uncomfortable this season.

44. Nick Chubb Nick Chubb – RB, Cleveland Browns (Last year: 58)

When looking at the Browns’ stacked offensive line and Shanahan-ish, outside-zone rushing scheme under Kevin Stefanski, it’d be easy think that Nick Chubb has been propped up, in a way.

But make no mistake, he’s one of the league’s best running backs for a reason.

The only running backs on my list ahead of Chubb are Derrick Henry and Jonathan Taylor.

Few running backs run the outside zone better than Chubb. As opposed to Dalvin Cook’s lightning-quick cut-back ability and ball carrier vision on wide-zone looks, Chubb packs the power with explosiveness on his cut-back runs, usually right through defenders (he was second in the NFL in 2021 with 3.0 yards per contact).

Chubb has averaged over five yards per carry in each of his four seasons in the NFL, despite carrying the ball a minimum of 190 times in each campaign.

He followed up a 1,494-yard, full season in 2019 with two seasons averaging 5.6 and 5.5 yards per carry for a combined 2,326 rushing yards, despite missing seven games. Last year, he second in the NFL in rushing yards (1,259) despite missing three games,

PFF loves him. Among running backs since entering the NFL in 2018, he’s been graded first, first, fourth and seventh, and he’s was graded as the third-best back in pass-blocking (an important, under-looked attribute), just one year after leading all of his peers in that category.

With Jacoby Brissett under center in place of Deshaun Watson for at least the Browns’ first 11 games, Chubb may very well lead the league in carries this season, even with Kareem Hunt as a talented back up.

43. CeeDee LambCeeDee Lamb — WR, Dallas Cowboys (Last year: NR)

With Amari Cooper now in Cleveland, CeeDee Lamb is unquestionably Dak Prescott’s new top target in the Cowboys offense, and is poised for a monster Year 3.

Projections for his numbers this year are off the charts, and I wouldn’t be surprised if he finished in the top three in receiving yards and receiving touchdowns, or if he led the league in both categories.

His ball skills and playmaking ability on the outside sometime seem effortless.

He’s battling a minor foot injury heading into Week 1, but should be good to go.

42. Kyle PittsKyle Pitts — TE, Atlanta Falcons (Last year: NR)

Kyle Pitts immediately showcased his talent as a rookie last season, hauling in 1,026 receiving yards and leading all tight ends in yards per catch (15.1) and air yards per target (10.8).

The tight end position continues to push out more athletic ‘freak’ prospects into the league as time marches on, and Pitts is one of the most talented prospects yet.

He’s not much of a blocker, but his speed, size and overall pass-catching ability (6-foot-6, 246 pounds) make him a mismatch for virtually any NFL defender, regardless of position.

Last year he almost had an even split in thirds in terms of snaps spent in-line, in the slot our out wide, but most of his receiving yards came when he was classified as a wide receiver.

The Falcons are in a full-on rebuild right now, but they chose the right player with the No. 4 overall pick in 2021 when they selected Pitts. He has Hall-of-Fame potential.

41.Mike EvansMike Evans – WR, Tampa Bay Buccaneers (Last year: 31)

This season is his last year of his 20s, putting him squarely either in the late middle or backend of his prime as an outside-the-numbers receiver, but one thing’s for certain, few pass catchers have had a better career than Mike Evans.

He’s the only receiver to begin his career with eight straight 1,000+ yard receiving seasons, and he’s set career highs in receiving touchdowns the last two years with marks of 13 and 14 in 2020 and 2021.

The 6-foot-5, 231-pound power-forward like receiver is one of the best perimeter jump-ball players the game has ever seen. But saying that feels like I’m selling his mechanics and route running short.

He’s a complete receiver who may go down as one of Tom Brady’s four or five favorite targets throughout his career.

“As far as the high-end guys, he’s one of the most underrated in football,” an AFC scout told ESPN.

“That’s how his career has been. When he’s done, he’ll have so many yards and production that you’ll have to put him in the Hall of Fame. He’s not always respected as he should be.”

40. Kevin Byard Kevin Byard – S, Tennessee Titans (Last year: 96)

Byard put on a career-best campaign last season, grading as PFF‘s top-rated safety in overall play (90.4 grade) and pass coverage (90.9) while earning a second career First-team All-Pro nod as the free safety and cornerstone/lynchpin of the Tennessee Titans defense.

He brings toughness and playmaking ability to the backend of the secondary, leading all safeties with 23 interceptions since 2017. Last year, his 13 defended passes also was the best number amongst his peers.

“Consistency in coverage separates him — he’s got rare instincts, always around the ball,” an AFC scout told ESPN.

“I think that position is the toss-up year-to-year with those top couple of guys, but he’s been the most consistent over the last few years in my opinion.”

39. A.J. TerrellA.J. Terrell — CB, Atlanta Falcons (Last year: NR)

After a rough rookie season in 2020, A.J. Terrell exploded into one of the NFL’s top defensive backs in 2021, grading as the second-best cornerback in the league in overall play and pass coverage according to PFF, and earning Second-team All-Pro honors.

He spends almost all of his time on the outside as a true shutdown perimeter cornerback. Among outside corners playing at least 300 coverage snaps last season, Terrell’s 0.6 yards allowed per snap was tops in the league, according to NFL Next Gen Stats.

Similar to Kyle Pitts’ blurb a few players up in this list, Terrell gives the Falcons another franchise cornerstone player in which to build their team around.

He’s my No. 2 cornerback in the league right now, and is close to being considered the best cornerback in the NFL heading into Year 3.

38. Maxx Crosby Maxx Crosby — EDGE, Las Vegas Raiders (Last year: NR)

From being a rookie 4th-round pick and HBO Hard Knocks star in 2019, to an unheralded All-Pro (Second-team) player in Year 3 last season, the ascension and journey of Maxx Crosby has been amazing to witness.

He’s a physically and mentally touch football player (he’s yet to miss a game) who has overcome obstacles off the field, transforming him into a can-do type of athlete that should boost his potential entering Year 4 and beyond.

His career-high sack total actually came in his rookie season in 2019 (10), but be’s became much more of a complete EDGE defender this past season in his breakout campaign.

PFF graded him as the second-best EDGE defender in the league (91.7 grade) in overall play, as well as second-best in pass rushing and sixth-best in run defense.

He can do it all now, which bodes well for the Raiders’ new coaching regime of head coach Josh McDaniels and defensive coordinator Patrick Graham, who spent five seasons as a Patriots defensive coach, and recently as defensive coordinator for Brian Flores’ Dolphins and Joe Judge’s Giants.

Graham is a Patriots-style defensive coordinator through and through. Las Vegas even brought along veteran sack master Chandler Jones to play opposite Crosby this year. But whether or not Graham leans toward more 3-4 or 4-3-style packages on defense, or both, Crosby should fit in nicely as a do-it-all defensive end.

37. Jeffery Simmons Jeffery Simmons — DI, Tennessee Titans (Last year: 95)

Similar to Maxx Crosby behind him on this list, Jeffrey Simmons enjoyed a breakout Year 3 campaign last season, earning Second-team All-Pro honors.

The former first-round pick (No. 19 overall) was a stud in 2021, seemingly finally fully recovered from an ACL tear that caused him to miss the start of his rookie year.

His 38.4 percent run stop win rate was the highest mark in the league among interior defenders, and he notched 8.5 sacks as a pass rusher.

“Game-wrecker,” an AFC scout told ESPN of Simmons.

“Can play 3-technique or nose tackle, high motor, physical, unique blend of get-off quickness and power, impacts the game in both phases. Another guy you have to know where he is at all times.”

“Right behind Donald as far as tackles, a NFL scouting director told ESPN. “He’s the scary guy you don’t want to see.”

The Titans will soon go through some sort of larger re-tooling from the team they’ve been throughout the Mike Vrabel-Ryan Tannehill-Derrick Henry era, but their M.O., toughness, is still intact, and Simmons is the perfect player to lead that charge for Tennessee in 2020 as one of the best emerging defensive lineman in the NFL.

36.Kyler Murray Kyler Murray — QB, Arizona Cardinals (Last year: 50)

The running theme in recent seasons is that the Arizona Cardinals get off to the races like gangbusters in September and October before falling off a cliff/Kliff (pun intended, I’ll see myself out…) down the stretch.

Head coach Kliff Kingsbury and quarterback Kyler Murray certainly deserve some blame for that.

But Murray remains one of the more unique players in the game today as a true shotgun, spread operator as a passer and designed rusher. His 20 career rushing touchdowns in three seasons are an example of his dynamic ability, but his 22-23-1 overall record as a starter is a classic good-with-the-bad scenario for his career thus far, although the latter number is clearly not all on Murray.

As inconsistent as this Cardinals team can be, they have a future with their young former No. 1 overall pick leading the charge.

After a game of chicken this offseason, Murray and Arizona eventually agreed to a massive five-year, $230.5 million contract extension ($160 million guaranteed), keeping him in the fold for the foreseeable future.

With DeAndre Hopkins out for the first six games of the season with a suspension, Murray and the Cardinals will be tested early this time around.

Former first-round pick Marquise “Hollywood” Brown was brought in via a controversial trade with the Ravens that saw Arizona give up a first-round pick for and give a lucrative extension to a receiver who is yet to breakout.

Murray’s ability to improve down the stretch and perhaps incorporate Brown into the fold for a career season, may be a good indicator of how successful Arizona is this season on offense.

35. Dak Prescott  Dak Prescott – QB, Dallas Cowboys (Last year: 48)

He had career-bests in passing touchdowns (37) and completion percentage (68.8%) last year on a career-high (tied with 2019) 596 pass attempts, and helped lead the Cowboys to a third NFC East title in six seasons.

But Dallas unceremoniously bowed out of the playoffs with a home NFC Wild Card loss to the 49ers in which Prescott mismanaged the clock on the final drive.

The brutal playoff losses have been common place for America’s Team since their dynastic run in the 1990s.

Prescott and the team should use their failures, and media member’s and fan’s opinions of them as fuel to succeed.

That’ll be tough to do with the Cowboys’ dwindling offensive line situation, sudden decline of a rushing attack, and the departure of receiver Amari Cooper.

Fellow Top 100 list mate and teammate CeeDee Lamb may be the only surefire weapon Prescott has in 2022.

It’ll be up to Prescott to elevate his supporting cast, something he can and will do, as well as integrate newcomers such as third-round pick Jalen Tolbert, a rookie receiver who may see a ton of snaps in the early goings this season.

Prescott signed a mega-deal last offseason, and will earn said deal with his performances in these next two to three important seasons for a team that can compete in a suddenly semi-desolate (in terms of contenders) NFC.

34. Matthew StaffordMatthew Stafford – QB, Los Angeles Rams (Last year: 43)

In Matthew Stafford’s blurb last year, I wrote this:

“If the 33-year-old passer still has a few prime years left, he should enjoy playing for a team that won’t require him to do things like he did in 2016 with the Lions — complete an NFL single-season record eight fourth quarter comebacks — for his team to compete.

Stafford spent years elevating a porous Lions squad, and although he’ll need to consistently play well for the Rams to go where they want to go, Sean McVay’s offensive scheme revolving around outside runs and play-action passing out of tight/bunch formations should make things easier for Stafford, considering his off-script and throw-on-the run ability.”

It felt good to witness Stafford playing in a system well-suited for his play (his 18 pass completions over 40+ yards led all QBs in 2021), and for a team that had legitimate Super Bowl aspirations.

Stafford and the Rams immediately found success in the early going in 2021, as the team was maybe the top contender in the league early on before overcoming some road bumps throughout the season to take charge again in the playoffs.

In the road to Super Bowl 56, Stafford first led a game-winning drive on the road in Tampa Bay to defeat Tom Brady in the Bucs, before helping McVay’s Rams finally defeat their arch nemesis, the 49ers, via a 13-point 4th quarter comeback to win the NFC title game. In Super Bowl 56, he led another game-winning drive to defeat the Bengals.

Now, at age 34, Stafford will look to maximize the Rams’ remaining Super Bowl window after one of his best seasons.

The Rams are still in ‘win-now’ mode, acquiring veterans such as wide receiver Allen Robinson and linebacker Bobby Wagner (both on this list) in their quest to repeat.

With Stafford now at the helm, the Rams, along with the Buccaneers and Packers, are on the top of the list when it comes to current NFC favorites.

33. Chris Jones Chris Jones – DI, Kansas City Chiefs (Last year: 20)

His 42 QB pressures last year ranked second among interior defenders, behind only Aaron Donald. He was also named a Second-team All-Pro player for the third time in the past four seasons.

Jones is a big reason why the Chiefs’ usually-underwhelming defense in recent seasons can sometimes go through stretches of top-level play. He sets the tone up front.

He also has a knack for batting down passes at the line of scrimmage.

Most importantly, he plays with a fiery edge that is sometimes lacking with the Chiefs defense. It’s much needed.

He remains a force as an elite pass rusher and improving run defender.

32. Travis Kelce Travis Kelce – TE, Kansas City Chiefs (Last year: 8)

Last season was his sixth campaign in a row producing 1,000-plus receiving yards, grading as a top-four tight end by PFF, and being named an All-Pro, and he produced double-digit touchdowns for the third time in four seasons.

He remains Patrick Mahomes’ favorite weapon, and at times, is simply uncoverable as a 6-foot-5, 250-pound tight end with wiggly route-running ability and shake-and-bake moves after the catch like a wide receiver (he led all TEs in yards after contact and yards after catch in 2021).

But when will his play decline? He turns 33 this October, and with Tyreek Hill now in Miami, defenses can shift a little more attention than usual Kelce’s way in the form of double-coverage and spy defenders underneath to stop some of the ‘sit’ routes he destroys defenses with.

Still, Kelce will find a way to damage defenses like few can, for most of 2022, but the backend of his prime will soon be over.

31.  Deebo SamuelDeebo Samuel – WR/RB, San Francisco 49ers (Last year: NR)

Is he a wide receiver? A running back? Both? Whatever you want to classify Deebo Samuel, he’s one of the best football players on the planet.

It seemed as if he wanted to leave San Francisco this offseason, with his heavy usage as a ball carrier perhaps being part of the reason, but he and the 49ers finally recently agreed on a three-year, $73.5 million contract extension with $58.1 million guaranteed.

Last season, he had plenty of stats, including the honor of being named First-team All-Pro, that showcased his true versatility as a dynamic receiver, rusher and overall playmaker.

He led the NFL in yards per catch, minimum 25 receptions (18.2), and led all receivers in yards after catch per reception (10.0). He was fifth in the league in receiving yards (1,405) and added on 365 rushing yards and eight rushing scores while averaging 6.2 yards per carry. PFF graded him third among receivers (90.2 grade) in overall play, and fifth in pass-catching, while he graded fifth overall as a rusher among running backs.

As San Francisco transitions into the Trey Lance era, the offense will add in different concepts and wrinkles, and veer toward schematic trends that suit their young QB well, but the overall Shanahan offense should continue to revolve around Samuel, one of game’s most dynamic player, as well.

30.  Darius Leonard  Shaquille Leonard – LB, Indianapolis Colts (Last year: 40)

Whether he goes by Darius, or now his middle name, Shaquille, Leonard is one of the best off-ball linebackers in the league, perfectly suited as a new-age, sideline-to-sideline hunter to help defend the speedy spread offenses and wide zone rushing schemes that are becoming more prevalent.

He’s been named an All-Pro in each of his four seasons, and last year was his third time being named to the First-team.

Despite being known a bit more for his pass coverage skills (he had four interceptions last year), he was actually the top-graded linebacker in run coverage by PFF last season.

He also forced a league-high eight fumbles, recovering two himself.

At just 27 years old, he should remain the enforcer of the Colts defense for years to come.

29. DeForest BucknerDeForest Buckner – DI, Indianapolis Colts (Last year: 22)

Back-to-back Colts defenders here, with one of the league’s most underrated players coming in at No. 28, before the more well-known Leonard.

After two straight seasons of being named an All-Pro, DeForest Buckner flew a bit more under the radar than usual in 2021.

At 6-foot-7, 295 pounds, Buckner is a daunting presence. He’s one of the best interior rushers in the league. He’s tallied 36 sacks in his last four seasons, a harder feat for defensive tackles.

He’s also only missed three games in his six-season career.

With talented pass rusher Yannick Ngakoue and young do-it-all EDGE Kwity Paye also along the defensive line, Buckner’s ability to beat double teams and have offensive lines account for him in the middle, should open up things for Indy’s pass rushers and linebackers such as Shaquille Leonard.

28. Stefon Diggs  Stefon Diggs – WR, Buffalo Bills (Last year: 15)

Compared to his unbelievable first year with the Bills, 2022 seemed like a step down for Stefon Diggs, but he was still clearly one of the best receivers in football.

Josh Allen looked his way 164 times last season, and Diggs hauled in 103 catches for 1,225 yards and 10 scores.

In Buffalo’s spread, Air-Raid-style offense, Diggs can easily move around. He’s one of the best route runners this game has ever seen, meaning he can certainly escape any style of cover man from any alignment.

“If we’re talking about beating a corner, winning one-on-one coverage, I don’t know if there’s anybody better,” a NFL offensive coach told ESPN of Diggs. “That’s his defining trait. He can break you down.”

Last year, he spent about 78 percent of his snaps out wide. I expect him to work a bit more out of the slot this season.

No matter if he was named an X-receiver, Z-receiver or slot man, Diggs is a potential All-Pro.

27. Jonathan Taylor Jonathan Taylor– RB, Indianapolis Colts (Last year: NR)

I left him off after his solid rookie season in 2020 (1,169 rushing yards, 11 rush TDs, 5,0 yards per carrry), which was a mistake.

Last year, Taylor finished second in Offensive Player of the Year voting, and was unanimously named First-team All-Pro.

He led the league in rushing yards (1,811), rushing touchdowns (18) and 20+ yard runs (14), and led all running backs in overall PFF grade (87.1). He also tied with Austin Ekeler for the league-lead in total touchdowns (20), and despite leading the NFL in carries (335), he still 5.5 yards per carry, which is insane.

If you’ve already read Najee Harris’ section earlier in this exercise, you see how I view the old-school, feature running back of bigger size returning to the game in sort of a cyclical way.

Taylor (5-foot-10, 226 pounds) is not massive, but he’s a bigger back than most today, and is capable of carrying his team to victories on the ground.

He runs with power and stamina that once exemplified some of the older 25-carries-per-game backs, but he’s also sneaky explosive, and packs a home-run threat, running for a league-high five 40-plus yard runs in 2021.

His offensive line is one of the best in the league. The unit is up there with the Browns’ group in terms of run-blocking, but Taylor is a talented runner who would do well in any scheme or system.

26. Derrick Henry Derrick Henry – RB, Tennessee Titans (Last year: 10)

Derrick Henry was on pace for back-to-back historic seasons before a Jones fracture in Week 8 caused him to miss the entire second half of this past regular season.

He became the eighth rusher in NFL history to scamper for 2,000+ yards in 2020, and added 17 TDs and won Offensive Player of the Year in the process.

In eight games last season, he ran for 937 yards and 10 touchdowns. By the time the regular season ended, Henry was still ninth in rushing yards despite playing in less than half of the Titans’ games. His yards per game mark (117.1) widely led the league by season’s end.

At just 28, Henry still has the potential for a few more top-shelf seasons. He’s been a workhorse throughout his career, meaning his production could immediately halt at any moment, but Henry is different than most backs.

Along with maybe Adrian Peterson, Derrick Henry is the closest thing to Jim Brown this league has seen since Brown retired.

In a show of faith, the Titans re-worked Henry’s contract recently, making him the highest-paid running back this season ($14 million).

The Titans lost A.J. Brown and Julio Jones this offseason, and rookie Malik Willis may push Ryan Tannehill for the starting quarterback job by season’s end. Tennessee is either in a mild transition as a franchise this season, or they will be soon. But the offense still revolves around Henry for now.

25. Zack Martin  Zack Martin – OG, Dallas Cowboys (Last year: 21)

Zack Martin, 31, has already produced one of the great careers as a guard in NFL history.

Last year, he was named First-team All-Pro for the fifth time in eight seasons, and PFF graded him second among guards (93.7) for the second straight year in an eight-year career that has him grading in the top five among his peers every season. He was also graded as top guard in run blocking, and second in pass blocking.

He’s one of the NFL’s most dependable players, as he rarely ever commits a penalty.

He has actually has more Pro Bowl appearances (7) than holding penalties committed (6) in his career, and last season was his fifth campaign without committing a single holding penalty. He’s a machine.

The Cowboys once-powerful offensive line just a few seasons ago, is going through a major transition. Tyron Smith is now missing at least most of this season due to injury (Dallas recently signed former Eagles tackle Jason Peters, who is age 40, to replace Smith) and the rest of the group is rather unheralded.

Martin’s presence as a leader will come in handy this season.

24.Fred WarnerFred Warner – LB, San Francisco 49ers (Last year: 39)

A year after being graded as PFF‘s top linebacker in coverage and overall play, Fred Warner played well once again, finishing fourth in each of those categories this season, and seventh amongst his peers versus the run.

He’s the complete package, taking the torch from Bobby Wagner as not only the prototypical linebacker in today’s game, but the gold standard.

“A true three-down linebacker, can be the quarterback of a complex defense, can blitz, great in coverage, great awareness,” an NFL personnel evaluator told ESPN. 

He’s the perfect type off off-ball linebacker to both chase down outsize-zone rushers to the sideline, and terrorize quarterbacks in shallow to intermediate zone coverage over the middle of the field.

Slot receivers up the seam, athletic tight ends running posts off of play-action passes, running backs running option routs out of the backfield, Warner can cover them all.

He’s still just 25 years old, meaning his run as one of the league’s best defensive players may only be beginning.

23. Russell Wilson  Russell Wilson – QB, Denver Broncos (Last year: 5)

Last year, Wilson’s numbers at face value (25 TDs, 6 INTs) for 14 games looked on-par with some of his efficient seasons of the past.

But his head and heart clearly were not as into it as years past down the stretch for a Seahawks team that was suffering through their first apparent re-tooling season. And that’s saying a lot about a quarterback with a near Tom Brady-level will to win.

His trade request was obliged, and with a move to the Broncos, came a massive new deal (five years, $245 million, $165 million guaranteed).

At 34, and joining a new team that still needs to bolster, or even fix, it’s offensive line situation, it’s tough to predict a classic-style Wilson season in Year 1 in his new home. As it is, I have the Broncos finishing last in the AFC West, and a couple wins away from a playoff berth.

But simply put, Wilson is a leader and winner.

His 113 wins as a starter (including playoffs) are the most for a quarterback through his first 10 seasons.

This season, he’ll need some help from Javonte Williams and the outside-zone rushing attack being re-installed in Denver, the birthplace and foundation of the Mike Shanahan scheme 25 years ago. If that can get going, then head coach Nathaniel Hackett, offensive coordinator Justin Outten and the returning Gary Kubiak can help scheme up downfield shots to X-receiver Courtland Sutton, Jerry Jeudy and K.J. Hamler for Wilson on play-action and bootleg concepts.

There’s a good chance Wilson enjoys a solid second act of his career in Denver. He may just need a season to acclimate, and for Denver to build this thing up.

22. Tyreek HillTyreek Hill – WR, Miami Dolphins (Last year: 7)

Now that he’s in Miami (with a fresh new contract extension),the big question surrounding Tyreek Hill this season, is the effectiveness of Tua Tagovailoa, and the latter’s ability to get the ball to the former, all within a new Shanahan-style scheme ushered in by rookie head coach Mike McDaniel.

Still just 28 years old, Hill’s never-before-seen speed, quickness, yards-after-catch ability and explosiveness are still intact, as well as his downfield pass-catching, and hang-onto-the-ball percentage when being cracked by safeties.

Perhaps no player in NFL history has had the complete package as a playmaker, with all of the above skills, as Hill.

He’s even shown the ability to adapt to changes.

Last season, as various two-deep safety alignments and four-man rushes helped flummox a once explosive Kansas City offense, Hill adapted by becoming more of a high-volume underneath option as the season waned, finishing for a career-high in targets (159), catches (111) and first downs (75).

His yards per reception number (11.2) dropped to his lowest since his rookie season, but that should increase in Miami, as play-action shots off of outside zone should accompany several deep cross-field drags and posts.

The preseason offered a small glimpse of the potential of Jaylen Waddle and Hill playing off each other on such concepts (see tweet below).

It also remains to be seen whether or not Miami will utilize Hill as a ball carrier, or de-facto running back, like San Francisco utilized Deebo Samuel last season.

There will be some adjustments to a new team, scheme and a lesser quarterback (despite what Hill has said this offseason on this matter), but ultimately Hill will adapt, and produce big plays as he always has.

21.Justin JeffersonJustin Jefferson – WR, Minnesota Vikings (Last year: 46)

Back-to-back receivers here, with a much different playmaker coming in at No. 21 in Justin Jefferson, a route-running extraordinaire.

Brought in as a direct replacement to Stefon Diggs in 2020, I believe Jefferson has now surpassed him as an overall receiver and pass catcher.

He followed up a near-historic rookie campaign (88 catches, 1,400 receiving yards, 15.9 yards per catch, 7 TDs) with an even-better sophomore season (167 targets, 1,616 receiving yards, 10 TDs).

He was named Second-team All-Pro in each of his first two seasons, and ranked fourth in second among receivers in PFF grade. And according to NFL Next Gen Stats, Jefferson had 2,060 air yards last year, which was 45.2 percent of his team’s total output, the most of any player in the league.

The sky is the limit for Jefferson in Year 3 and beyond under new head coach Kevin O’Connell. The recent Rams offensive coordinator should bring some deep play-action passing and bootleg concepts that will accentuate Jefferson’s ability as a downfield mismatch option for defensive backs.

20. George Kittle George Kittle – TE, San Francisco 49ers (Last year: 6)

He’s had some trouble staying healthy, missing nine games over the past two seasons, which has helped minimize his numbers in 2020 and 2021 after a two-year stretch of a dominance in 2018 and 2019.

Still, PFF graded him first among tight ends in receiving, and second in overall play last year.

He’s still the best tight end in football.

Between his blocking, yards-after catch ability and awareness on the field, his presence (along with Deebo Samuel’s) makes Kyle Shanahan’s ‘Shanahan’ offense, the crème de la crème of its kind.

The 28-year-old is still in the prime of his career, and should produce better numbers this season as a main target on various passing concepts (play-action posts, seam routes, bootleg drags, etc.) for a young quarterback (Trey Lance) who will need an outlet while learning the rigors of the pro game.

19. Joey Bosa Joey Bosa – EDGE, Los Angeles Chargers (Last year: 16)

He had another solid season in 2021, tallying 10.5 sacks and grading fourth as a pass-rushing EDGE on PFF. 

There’s a chance he has an even better campaign this year, with Khalil Mack opposite him in Brandon Staley’s Vic Fangio-style 3-4 scheme. Bosa was double teamed on 23 percent of defensive snaps last season, but that will now certainly change.

“He always has a plan. He’s setting up his moves for later in the game, and he’s got great technique,” an NFL personnel evaluator told ESPN of Joey Bosa.

“He’s just a classic edge rusher. He’s a nightmare for a tackle because of the way he keeps you guessing.”

The Chargers are a team with an absurd amount of talent, and Bosa is the second-highest Charger on this list, behind the team’s quarterback.

18. Justin Herbert Justin Herbert – QB, Los Angeles Chargers (Last year: 82)

All of the hype surrounding Justin Herbert heading into Year 3, is warranted.

His numbers through his first two seasons are already top-tier.

Last year, he finished second in passing yards (5,314), third in passing touchdowns (38), third in Total QBR (65.6) and fourth in PFF grade among quarterbacks (90.0).

He can move in and out of the pocket, extend plays, throw downfield, and is steadily improving on how he reads defenses.

He also has one of the best arms this league has ever seen. It’s simply a cannon (see below).

“When you’re that talented physically and you’re smart, it’s mind-boggling,” a NFL coordinator said of Herbert to ESPN.

“Adding his strength and power, he’s hard to tackle, all of that; and he’s seeing things for another season so will have a better understanding.”

There’s a lot of pressure on Herbert this season. He’s leading a talented Chargers team with nine players on my Top 100 list, the most of any single team since I began this exercise in 2018. The Chargers have certainly stocked up during Herbert’s rookie contract, which is wise.

To take advantage of their newly-created Super Bowl window, Herbert will have to balance his talent and aggression by learning how to limit his mistakes (15 interceptions last season).

There’s a strong chance he’s among the Top 5 or 10 on this list by next season.

17. Joe BurrowJoe Burrow – QB, Cincinnati Bengals (Last year: NR)

Two years after his fabulous Heisman Trophy-winning, National Championship season to finish college,  Joe Burrow led his team, the usually downtrodden Bengals, to the verge of a Super Bowl title.

In between those two seasons was a rough rookie year that included some growing pains and an ACL tear, as Cincinnati was reminded they were a bottom dweller.

But look how quickly things can change?

Burrow, who was named Comeback Player of the Year, was the highest-graded QB by PFF last season in passing and overall play.

He’s also now the third quarterback in history to rightly earn the nickname “Joe Cool,” following in the footsteps of two former legendary Super Bowl heroes in Joe Namath and Joe Montana.

Last season, Burrow was calm and cerebral in the pocket, and spread the ball to his offensive weapons with ease. As great as Herbert is — and his potential as a talent trumps Burrow’s — the quarterback position in the pros will always revolve around decision-making and accuracy, as ESPN analyst Louis Riddick puts it.

Herbert is an incredible passer, but I believe Burrow is the better overall quarterback at the moment, even if just by a smidge.

“I hate to compare anybody to Brady, but he might be the closest thing,” a NFL offensive coach said of Burrow to ESPN.

“What, did he take nine sacks in that playoff game [against Tennessee]? Didn’t flinch. Hung in there. He’s just got a toughness about him and the ability to think through a game.”

Cincinnati may go through a bit of a Super Bowl loser’s curse next season. But if you study closely, you should see improvements in Burrow’s game. He’s a gamer, and he’s only going to get better.

16. Ja'Marr Chase Ja’Marr Chase – WR, Cincinnati Bengals (Last year: NR)

Coming in one spot above Burrow is his favorite target, both in college, and now the NFL.

There’s no beating around the bush — Ja’Marr Chase may already be the best wide receiver in the NFL.

At 6-foot, 201 pounds, he combines speed and power to be one of the game’s most explosive athletes.

As a rookie, he won Offensive Rookie of the Year, was named Second-team All-Pro, and tallied 1,455 yard (fourth in NFL) for 13 receiving touchdowns (third in NFL). He also ranked second in yards per reception (18.0) and yards per target (11.5), and third in yards after catch (658).

He’s just as liable to outmuscle and outrun an entire defense for a long touchdown on a slant, as he is on a fly.

In the regular season, Chase’s performances in two wins over division rival Baltimore (15 catches, 326 yards, 1 TD) and another versus Kansas City (12 targets, 11 catches, 266 yards, 3 TDs) were the stuff of legends.

Teams paid more attention to him in the playoffs, yet he still managed to garner 100+ receiving yards in his first two playoff games before scoring a crucial touchdown in the Bengals’ comeback in Kansas City to reach the Super Bowl.

Chase reminds me of some of the best explosive receivers this game has ever seen. Randy Moss, Terrell Owens, Tyreek Hill.

It also helps that he has a deep connection with Burrow, and that he’s part of a receiving core perfectly built with tall X-receiver Tee Higgins on the perimeter, and “big” slot Tyler Boyd.

For now, Chase is perfect as a X/Z-receiver hyrbrid spending most of his time outside, but has the ability to move around (think: “speed” slot receiver in shotgun trips).

He should be a mainstay among top offensive weapons for the rest of this decade.

I’d be fairly surprised if he’s not the top receiver on this list next season.

15. Quenton Nelson Quenton Nelson – OG, Indianapolis Colts (Last year: 11)

Year 4 was the first “down” year for Quenton Nelson, by his standards.

He missed three games due to a high-ankle sprain, and the season ended up being his first campaign where he was not named a First-team All-Pro.

Still, Nelson was one of the league’s better guards, earning Second-team All-Pro honors, and helping to lead the way for the NFL’s leading rusher in Jonathan Taylor.

Heading into a contract year, playing on his fifth-year option, I have Nelson as one of my surest bets to be named First-Team All-Pro in 2022.

He’s the best guard in football, no question, and probably will be for the foreseeable future.

14. Davante AdamsDavante Adams – WR, Las Vegas Raiders (Last year: 17)

After eight seasons with the Packers, mostly as Aaron Rodgers’ top target, Davante Adams surprisingly requested a trade, presumably in the search for one last big contract.

The Raiders, under a new former Patriots regime of general manager Dave Ziegler and head coach Josh McDaniels, obliged.

Las Vegas sent a first and second-round pick to Green Bay for Adams, showcasing the wide receiver’s worth. Las Vegas than made Adams the highest-paid wide receiver in NFL history via a five-year, $141.5 million deal ($28.25 million per year).

Adams, 29, is coming off the beset two-year stretch of his career, totaling 138 catches for 2,927 receiving yards and 29 receiving scores. He also was named First-team All-Pro in both seasons, and PFF graded him first and second in 2020 and 2021 among his position.

He has the body of a pure outside, X-receiver (6-foot-1, 215 pounds), yet is as quick and agile as they come, which helps him in the slot, where he also spends a good amount of time.

Along with Cooper Kupp, Stefon Diggs and Keenan Allen, he is the present-day Mt. Rushmore of route-running for receivers. He’s as smooth as they come, and has the respect of his peers, and from the league in general.

In an interview with Brandon Marshall and Co. on the I Am Athlete podcast over the summer, Julian Edelman mentioned Adams first when the hosts grilled the former Patriots great by making him name is top-three current receivers.

“He’s quicker than what you think,” Edelman said of Adams.

“He can run run by you, has great separation, great catch radius. You can play him everywhere, and we saw that with the Packers the last couple years. His versatility, his size, his quickness…he’s not the fastest guy, but he’s never not open, because he had the back shoulder thing going with Aaron Rodgers.”

“Still the best,” an NFC exec told ESPN of Adams.

“Big, athletic, runs all the routes, competitive.” Added an AFC personnel evaluator: “His spatial awareness and route feel are the best. There are times, because of how good he was with Aaron [Rodgers], where you couldn’t guard him.”

Adams’ overall production, from a volume stand point, may take a small hit in 2022. The Raiders are well equipped on offense with tight end Darren Waller, slot receiver Hunter Renfrow and running back Josh Jacobs also expected to garner targets and touches.

But Adams is the top option for his good friend, Derek Carr, this year. And despite the perceived caution of thinking a high-priced free agent receiver will just pick things right where he left off with a new squad, there’s little reason to doubt Adams won’t be an All-Pro caliber player again this season. He’s a great fit for McDaniels’ offense.

13.Cooper KuppCooper Kupp – WR, Los Angeles Rams (Last year: 90)  

Kupp lit the league on fire in 2022 by producing arguably the greatest season for a wide receiver in NFL history.

His year was so spectacular, that I’m better off listing his stats, accolades and accomplishments in bullet form:

— Ranked first in targets (191), catches (145), receiving yards (1,947 and receiving TDs (16)

— Ranked first in 20+ yard receiving plays (30), 40+ yard receiving plays (9) and yards after catch (846), and had zero fumbles

— Ranked first among receivers in first downs (89)

— Ranked first in expected points added (111.9), per NFL Next Gen Stats

— Graded first by PFF among WRs in receiving (93.1) and overall grade (93.0)

— In four playoff games, tallied 33 catches for 478 yards and caught 6 TDs

— Named First-team All-Pro

— Named NFL Offensive Player of the Year

— Named Super Bowl MVP

*******

Some may have the notion that Kupp can only produce from the slot, but he can play the Z-receiver or X-receiver role just as well. In fact, he’s more of an inside-outside hybrid.

At 6-foot-2, 208 pounds, he’s more physical than most think, deploying the ability to beat press through his build. But that’s not needed, as his quickness and nuance at the position is matched only by Davante Adams.

There’s a debate over who is the best route-runner in the NFL, but my money is on Kupp, who signed a lucrative three-year extension over the summer, heading into 2022, even if just barely. He’s able to work on an island versus any type of defender, in any type of alignment, and take them to school. He can get open on McVay’s designed play-action and bootleg concepts, or in shotgun spread looks on clear passing downs.

This season, it’s unlikely he matches the volume numbers set forth in 2021, but watch the subtleties in Kupp’s game throughout the season. There’s a good chance that he’ll somehow get better.

12. Lamar Jackson Lamar Jackson – QB, Baltimore Ravens (Last year: 18)       

Last season, the Ravens began the season 8-3 before various injuries occurred, which assisted in them losing six straight games to close the season (five of the losses were by a combined eight points. Lamar Jackson was sidelined by an ankle injury in Week 14 that caused him to miss the rest of the season.

After two solid seasons as a passer and rusher, Jackson’s passing numbers were way down in 2021 in 12 games, but he was well on his way to a third straight season of 1,000+ rushing yards had he played a full state.

He’s one of the most dynamic players to ever play the quarterback position. He’s the best rushing quarterback of all time already (sorry, Michael Vick), and is underrated as a passer, both in arm talent and cereberal ability.

Most importantly, he’s a winner. He has a 37-12 regular season record as a starter, which gives him a winning percentage that ranks up with the best quarterbacks of all time through 50 starts. He also became the winningest QB in NFL history before the age of 25 last season, passing Dan Marino.

This season, the Ravens are not only my pick to win the AFC North, but to win the Super Bowl, both because of their smart offseason signings and draft moves (per usual), and because the return of Jackson, who I predict will have a career year in 2022 via versatility as a passer and rusher.

Jackson will begin this season without the new deal he’s been coveting. His rookie contract officially runs out this offseason. But like Joe Flacco exactly a decade ago, Jackson is well positioned to become the highest-paid quarterback in NFL history if he is to reach his potential as a rusher and improved passer this season. I’m confident he’ll impress many.

11. Trent WilliamsTrent Williams – OT, San Francisco 49ers (Last year: 28)   

Picking back up from a fantastic 2020 campaign, his first in San Francisco, Trent Williams somehow improved in 2021.

He graded as PFF‘s top tackle in overall play for the second straight season (96.6 grade), and he was also the top-rated offensive linemanin run blocking (97.7).

Somehow, last season was the only time in his career that he was named First-team All-Pro.

I mentioned earlier how important George Kittle and Deebo Samuel are to Kyle Shanahan’s successful offense, but Williams is just as valuable as a 6-foot-5, 320-pound tackle with the quickness and speed to block defenders on outside zone runs.

Along with Kittle, Fred Warner, Nick Bosa and others, Williams was named a team captain for 2022, which is a testament to his leadership, as this is just his second season with the 49ers.

He did turn 34 over the summer, but he’s the best offensive lineman in the game right now, regardless.

10. Jalen RamseyJalen Ramsey – CB, Los Angeles Rams (Last year: 23) 

As of right now, there’s not debate over who is the best defensive back in football. It’s Jalen Ramsey.

Notice how I said defensive back, and not cornerback.

Ramsey is an elite perimeter cornerback and an elite nickel defender, making him the best defensive back in the NFL right now. He spends ample time in each position, and his ability to defend out of each technique is evident of team’s necessity to have a top-end defender who can defend any top-tier pass catcher, from any position, in today’s game.

Ramsey was the top-graded cornerback by PFF in overall play and coverage last season, and was also graded as the fourth-best defender in run coverage among his peers.

The Rams can line up the 6-foot-1, 208-pound Ramsey anywhere, but the Rams love using him at the “Star” position.

Teams love to throw inside the numbers, meaning leaving Ramsey inside as a zone or man-coverage defender is beneficial to keeping offense’s passing attacks at bay.

When Ramsey moves outside, he’s best utilized as a press coverage cornerback in Cover-3 and Zone-match looks.

Ramsey is also a competitor of the highest class, packing attitude and a can-do attitude that gets in the head of defenses.

Still just 27 years old, there’s a chance that he’s yet to reach his peak as a defender.

9. Micah Parsons Micah Parsons – LB/EDGE, Dallas Cowboys (Last year: NR)

It seems like every year or two, there’s a generational defensive talent coming into the league.

Micah Parsons (6-foot-3, 245 pounds) is the most versatile of those prospects we may have ever seen.

The Dallas Cowboys were lucky he fell to the No. 12 overall pick in the 2021 draft. They selected him to play off-ball linebacker, in which he played a majority of his snaps in 2021, but defensive coordinator Dan Quinn ended up playing as an EDGE rusher almost half the time.

Parsons actually played at least 115 snaps at left outside linebacker, left inside linebacker, right outside linebacker and right inside linebacker.

He was an unstoppable force wherever he was placed. PFF graded him as the league’s top linebacker (89.7 grade) and best pass rusher (93.0) at any position.

Parsons also registered 13 sacks, and the top pass rush win rate (29.2%) among EDGE defenders.

He was awarded the Defensive Rookie of the Year award and was named a First-team All-Pro.

There’s a debate on where Parsons should play. He’s a phenomenal off-ball linebacker, but pairing him on the edge opposite DeMarcus Lawrence is straight up lethal.

“I don’t see Micah as an off-the-ball LB at all,” an NFL coordinator told ESPN. “He’s really a 3-4 OLB that DQ (Cowboys defensive coordinator Dan Quinn) is scheming into situational opportunities.”

“If Dallas does anything but let him rush, they are crazy,” an NFC exec said to ESPN.

Regardless of where he plays most in 2022, Parsons has as good of a shot as anyone of winning Defensive Player of the Year. Even after just one season, it’s apparent he’s a Hall-of-Fame level talent.

8. Nick BosaNick Bosa – EDGE, San Francisco 49ers (Last year: 19)

In his two healthy seasons (he missed almost all of 2020 due to an ACL tear), Nick Bosa has registered 24.5 sacks and forced five fumbles, often working against double teams.

He had 15.5 sacks and forced four fumbles last season, despite facing double teams on 30 percent of his defensive snaps, and his stellar play seemingly went mildly unrecognized compared to others.

In San Francisco’s 4-3-style defensive front, Bosa’s athletic presence is complinted by Javon Kinlaw and Arik Armstead providing a solid combo in the interior. Considering that, there’s at least some reason to think that offensive lines will have to slightly minimize their double teams on Bosa, or else one-on-ones will go to the 49ers elsewhere quite often. San Francisco is one of the most talented teams in the league, but Bosa is unquestionably their best player.

The 49ers already picked up his fifth-year option, meaning he has another year left on his deal after 2022, but there’s a strong chance Bosa receives a massive contract next summer, meaning he has extra incentive to put up a monster season.

7. Myles Garrett Myles Garrett – EDGE, Cleveland Browns (Last year: 12)

Year 5 was Myles Garrett’s best as a pro.

He played in all 17 games, and registered a career-high 16 sacks and PFF graded him as the top EDGE in pass rushing (92.7 grade) and overall play (92.0).

Along with Nick Bosa, Myles Garrett is the prototypical 4-3 EDGE defender in today’s game. He’s a 6-foot-4, 272-pound power forward possessing speed and strength. He’s a mismatch for just about any offensive tackle he lines up against.

Garrett has an array of moves he utilizes to get to the pass rusher (see above), both in the finesse and power categories. He’s used those moves to register the top PFF pass rush grade since 2017 (93.1) among EDGE defenders.

“When he’s on, one-on-one, he’s unblockable,” an AFC offensive coach said of Garrett to ESPN. 

Garrett will be working opposite Jadeveon Clowney for a second straight season. Clowney is still a bigger presence, particularly versus the run, so there should be ample snaps for Garrett on the weak side, where he can pin his ears back and rack up sacks and pressures in 2022.

With their quarterback situation this season, the Browns need a DPOY-caliber season from Garrett. this year.

6. T.J. Watt  T.J. Watt – EDGE, Pittsburgh Steelers (Last year: 9)

After finishing second in voting over the past two seasons, T.J. Watt finally was awarded (and rightly so) the league’s Defensive Player of the Year award in 2021.

His 22.5 sacks last year tied Michael Strahan for the all-time single season record, and Watt did it in 15 games played.

He also forced five fumbles, recovering three, and led the league with 35.5 ‘disrupted dropbacks,’ which includes include sacks, interceptions, batted passes at the line of scrimmage, and passes defended in coverage.

Watt is the best 3-4-style outside linebacker in the game.

Because of the modern day NFL, the Steelers mostly use a 2-4-5 as their base defense. Many believed Watt benefited greatly from playing opposite Bud Dupree for his first few seasons. But after Dupree left for the Titans this past year, Watt still put up a career year.

“Rare motor and quickness with his hands, has developed good power, and he can also dip and bend high side,” an AFC exec said to ESPN of Watt.

“Basically, he can beat you inside through you or outside. And [the Steelers] bring so much pressure typically that he’s able to add good chase production.”

Since he entered the league in 2017, Watt has the most sacks (72) and forced fumbles (22) in the league, and his sacks per game rate (0.94) is the best mark of all time.

He’ll turn just 28 in October, and is already closing in on James Harrison (80.5 sacks) to become the Steelers’ all-time sack leader. He almost certainly will reach that feat this season.

Playing for a historic franchise already packed with many memorable moments and players, Watt is becoming an all-time great for the Black and Gold.

5. Josh AllenJosh Allen – QB, Buffalo Bills (Last year: 13)

Between Lamar Jackson’s speed, ball carrier vision and playmaking and cutting ability, Kyler Murray’s quickness and explosiveness, and Josh Allen’s gazelle-like long speed and power on both designed runs and scrambles, there are three of the best running quarterbacks of all-time playing in the present.

It just so happens that Allen also has one of the best arms in NFL history, and is improving his accuracy and decision-making as a passer at warp speed.

Between Allen’s development, and Bills general manager Brandon Beane and head coach Sean McDermott’s construction of the team, the Bills have now positioned themselves as not only the new bullies of the AFC East (they are 4-1 in their last five meetings with Bill Belichick’s Patriots), but as this year Super Bowl favorite.

Last year, Allen scored 42 total touchdowns (36 passing, 6 rushing) and graded as PFF‘s No. 3 overall QB (first in rushing, ninth in passing.

He carried the ball for a career-high 122 times and threw for a career-high 646 passes. And in his two final aforementioned meetings with New England in 2021, including a wild card beatdown in Buffalo, Allen throw for eight touchdowns and zero interceptions, and the Bills did not punt even once in those two meetings.

Quite simply, Allen is the football messiah of Buffalo.

The entirety of the Bills’ offense revolves around Allen”s ability to perform in shotgun spread situations, both passing and running via designed concepts, read-and-react passing via dissecting coverages, and sometimes, just straight-up improvising.

Longtime NFL Films analyst Greg Cossell called “the most physically gifted quarterback in the NFL.” He was right. Allen’s talent as a player is beyond that of even Patrick Mahomes, in my opinion.

There’s heavy pressure revolving around the Bills this season. This is a great chance for Allen to show some consistency, both year-to-year (which he has done), and week-to-week.

4. Patrick MahomesPatrick Mahomes – QB, Kansas City Chiefs (Last year: 1)

Mahomes gets the nod over Allen for his consistency over the past four seasons. As great as Allen’s potential peak seems to be,  Mahomes, who outdueled Allen and the Bills for a second consecutive season in the playoffs (last year’s AFC Divisional was an all-time classic), Mahomes has already proven to me that he’s here to stay as an all-time talent.

With Tyreek Hill gone, and Travis Kelce now at age 33, the second act of Mahomes is career is already beginning.

Now that he’s off his rookie deal, with his new contract taking up much of the Chiefs’ cap space, can he work with newer, lesser targets (not all-time talents like Tyreek Hill), and perhaps a modified offense (Ronald Jones II signing at running back signals to me they may look to add in a power rushing element under-center), to keep Kansas City in the mix as a Super Bowl contender?

I think Mahomes is up for the challenge.

Marquez Valdes-Scantling was brought in from Green Bay to be Kansas City’s deep threat, while JuJu Smith-Schuster is a sneay double-digit touchdown candidate after being added as a “big” slot option. The Chiefs also drafted receiver Skyy Moore in the second round. Moore is a “speed” slot option who can maybe eventually run some of Hill’s routes, as well. He should be an immediate threat as a underneath yards-after-catch option.

Then of course, there’s the returning Kelce, perhaps Mahomes’ all-time favorite target, along with Mecold Hardman as a gadget option on pre-snap motion concepts.

Last season, NFL defenses finally began to slow down Mahomes and head coach Andy Reid’s all-time prolific offense by playing more two-deep safety structures, with zone coverage muddling up the middle of the field, forcing Mahomes to be extra patient as a passer.

As great as Mahomes is as an improviser and playmaker, his impatience got the better of him at times in 2021.

I expect Mahomes to take another leap in 2022, evolving as a “super computer” passer within the pocket, who sometimes takes what the defense gives him.

“He was able to see some different coverages a little bit, more zone than what he’s seen in the first few years,” Andy Reid told The Ringer‘s Kevin Clark of Mahomes’s 2021 season.

“And so he worked through all that, and now he’s got a whole package of things in his head to counter….It was variations [of Cover 2] and it was important he saw those and as a professional—they’ll help him down the road. … There’s not a whole lot left people can show you,” Reid said.

His offensive line is among the best in the league (center Creed Humphrey and guard Joe Thuney are on this list), as they showed down the stretch of last season after gelling together.

The AFC West, a division Kansas City has won six season in a row, is loaded now. It’s perhaps the most talented division of all-time. But I would very surprised if the Chiefs surrender the crown this season.

3. Aaron RodgersAaron Rodgers – QB, Green Bay Packers (Last year: 4)

After what seemed like an impending divorce heading into this past offseason, the unpredictable Aaron Rodgers surprised many by singing a four-year, $200 million contract extension ($153 million guaranteed) that will likely keep him in Green Back for the rest of his career.

Rodgers, 39, is near the end. He could very well play just two more seasons of his contract with the Packers. Or, he could play himself into a new contract after this. Or he may abruptly retire after this season.

There’s really no telling.

What we do know, is that he is coming off the best two-year stretch of his career, throwing for 85 touchdowns and just nine interceptions, leading the league in Total QBR in both seasons, as well as being named First-team All-Pro and NFL MVP award in both (!) campaigns.

After struggling some to find his footing in Year 1 under new head coach Matt LaFleur’s Shanahan-ish, under-center, power-running and play-action passing scheme, Rodgers then quickly mastered the concepts and mixed them in with some of his shotgun, freelance passing.

Packer fans were given a second surprise this offseason, and it was rather unpleasant.

Davante Adams, Rodgers’ favorite target, was dealt, at Adams’ request, to the Las Vegas Raiders.

Rodgers is now left with Allen Lazard, rookie second-round pick Christian Watson, veteran Sammy Watkins, and longtime friend, slot receiver Randall Cobb (age 32) as his projected top weapons. There as concern over whether or not Green Bay had an adequate pass-catching core even with Adams in the fold, now, there’s real concern.

But I believe Rodgers will make do. Rookie Romeo Doubs, a fourth-round pick that I omitted in the paragraph above, is who I see as Rodgers’ eventual top target in Green Bay, even maybe by the end of this season.

And to help the passing game, the Packers have a top-tier offensive line, and the dynamic Aaron Jones, and bruising A.J. Dillon (who I think is their top back), to help take the pressure off by grinding down defenses, particularly in cold weather games later in the year.

Then there’s the defense.

The Packers are well-known for sticking to their philosophy of home-grown team-building, with minimal trades and high-priced free agent acquisitions.

This past draft, Green Bay general manager Brian Gutekunst used the franchise’s two first-round picks on players on defending national champion Georgia’s historic defense, in linebacker Quay Walker (No. 22 overall pick) and defensive lineman Devonte Wyatt (Georgia).

Green Bay is a complete team set up for success in the next few seasons, giving Rodgers, a four-time NFL MVP searching for his second ring, a chance at a John Elway or Peyton Manning-like ending to his career.

2. Tom Brady Tom Brady – QB, Tampa Bay Buccaneers (Last year: 3)

The NFL’s best player of all-time, and all-time leader in wins, Super Bowl wins, games played, passing yards and touchdown passes, led the league in pass attempts (719), passing yards (5,316) and passing touchdowns (43) at the age of 44 last year.

This could be the final season for Brady, who once daringly set out to play quarterback in in the NFL until the age of 45, and now will achieve that feat, while still being the best quarterback in the game. Brady’s late career push, particularly after “On to Cincinnati,” is near incomprehensible. Already in the mix for the distinction of the greatest quarterback of all-time back in 2014, Brady has won four more Super Bowls in five appearances since then, and one title famously with his new team.

Those that know me, know that Brady is my favorite athlete or sports figure of all time. When he retires, there will be time to look back on his career as a whole, and what that meant to me and millions of others, but with at least one more season at play, let’s get to the 2022 Bucs.

*******

This was a weird offseason for Brady, who retired, then unretired, then signed a massive broadcast deal to be FOX‘s version of Tony Romo for NFL coverage when he retires. The latter contract goes into effect when he’s done playing, which could be after this season, but then again, if not thwarted, the overzealous Miami Dolphins almost landed a seemingly-interested Brady as a potential part-owner and quarterback this season, signaling perhaps that Brady had intentions to play past the age of 45 with a third club.

However he saw his career ending even months ago, it does seem that Brady has now settled on one last year in Tampa before finally hanging up his helmet and throwing arm.

The GOAT missed a big portion of the preseason and training camp to reportedly spend time with his family, and things have seemed a bit odd with the Bucs this preseason.

But even with some end-of-career oddities at play for Brady, he’s able to block out the noise and distractions to focus better than any athlete in human history.

Tampa is going through changes along the offensive line, particularly in the interior, but the likes of Tristan Wirfs and Shaq Mason, along with Brady’s super-computer processing and quick passing, should help minimize any effect that may have on the passing offense.

Leonard Fournette and the power running game should help, too. The deep-shot play-action passing to Mike Evans should still work well, as are passes to Chris Godwin in the seam and on downfield posts, when healthy.

Elsewhere, Brady convinced slot receiver Russell Gage, the seemingly spry Julio Jones, and tight end Kyle Rudolph to join the team for depth. Jones in particular looked rejuvenated in August.

Despite the unusual offseason, Brady and the Bucs are set up to win the NFC South and perhaps contend for another Super Bowl berth in what is becoming a watered-down NFC (compared to recent seasons).

If this is the last go-round for the GOAT, let’s all do our best to appreciate it. I know I will (as if there was any ever doubt).

1. Aaron Donald Aaron Donald – DI, Los Angeles Rams (Last year: 2)

It was time.

After three straight seasons of ranking him at my No. 2 slot, It’s time to give Donald his due as No. 1.

Yes, the quarterback position is more valuable. But Donald, for my money, is inching closer to Lawrence Taylor to trump him to earn the moniker of greatest defensive player in NFL history.

Last season, he finally added a Super Bowl title to his absurd resume, and he was a major part in the action, pressuring Joe Burrow into a 4th-down incomplete pass that ended the game.

Donald is an absolute force in the interior. He’s unblockable, and would do the same as an EDGE defender, but the ability create constant pressure from the interior is more valuable.

In his eight seasons, Donald has 98 sacks (most in NFL since 2014) and 23 forced fumbles. He has 59 sacks in his last four seasons.

In the last seven seasons, Donald has also been named First-team All-Pro each year, and has won the Defensive Player of the Year award three times.

PFF has also graded him as the top interior defender for seven straight seasons (he was even graded as second-best in his rookie season) in overall play. Last season, PFF graded him first among his peers in pass rush, and second as a run defender.

He also led all interior defenders in pass rush win rate (26.7%) and QB pressures (64) last year.

Simply put, he is a menace.

He turned 31 this offseason, and despite swirling rumors of a possible early retirement, Donald and Rams were able to come to terms on a contract extension that makes him the highest-paid non-QB in the NFL.

He’s still clearly in the prime of his career, and his leadership, tenacity and gamesmanship (excluding a pretty recent embarrassing moment from him in joint-practice scuffle with the Bengals where he acted a bit foolish), make him one of the league’s bright spots, both on and off the field.

The Rams are top-heavy talented team with a great coaching staff. They have a solid shot at competing for back-to-back Super Bowl titles, and much of that is thanks to Donald, one of the 10-to-15 (at minimum) greatest football players of all-time.

Jeffery Simmons vs Rams

NFL Monday Morning Madness Week 9: ‘Any Given Sunday’ moniker was earned this weekend

This past week of football was initially going to be highlighted for having the most Super Bowl rematches in a single week (5) in NFL history, but just as recent weeks have unfolded, as soon as the early slate of games kicked off on Sunday, mayhem ensued.

By the end of the night, four of the league’s division leaders suffered losses, and another division-leader, Baltimore (6-2), needed overtime to survive Minnesota (3-5) at home.

The topsy-turvy AFC, in particular, continues to be one of the weirdest-looking conference races in NFL history at midseason.

The Titans (7-2) and Ravens lead the conference as two-loss clubs, and then there are 10 teams with either five or four wins, vying for playoff spots.

No follower of the league can rightly say they have a firm grip on their prognostications going forward, but that’s what makes this season so fun, even if there has been an abundant of sloppy play.

Tennesee’s 28-16 beatdown of the Rams on Sunday night was most evident of this. Had the Rams had a solid win in this game, Matthew Stafford would have been a possible MVP frontrunner at midseason, and the Rams probably would have been looked at as Super Bowl favorites (they still might be, and rightfully so).

Instead, the Rams failed miserably in a game of catch-up after falling behind 21-3 early because of two Matthew Stafford interceptions, including one pick-six, while Los Angeles was backed up in its own territory in the first half.

Additionally, Tennessee sacked Stafford five times, with defensive tackle Jeffery Simmons (three sacks, four QB hits) outshining perhaps the best defensive tackle of all-time, Aaron Donald (one sack) in his own stadium.

Tennessee is a tough squad that should be in the thick of the AFC race all year long, but they really needed Stafford’s mistakes to come away with a win here.

The Titans averaged under three yards per carry on the ground without Derrick Henry, and Ryan Tannehill looked just so-so, despite coming through in some big moments.

The Rams should recover, but that’s now two big stinkers (Cardinals loss being the other one) so far this season. I suppose every team gets two or three, this season.

The Titans were blown out by the Cardinals in Week 1 and lost to the Jets in Week 4.

This was a wacky, wacky weekend in a wacky, wacky season. The moniker ‘Any Given Sunday’ was truly earned in Week 9.

Let’s do our best to break down a few other things in sort of a Quick-Hits form.

Among the most surprising results on Sunday were the Broncos complete drubbing of the Cowboys in Denver, the Giants stifling of the Raiders at home, and the Jaguars’ 9-6 win over the Bills. All three division winners looked piss-poor on Sunday. Denver led Dallas 30-0 late in the fourth quarter before the Cowboys lowered the final score to 30-16 in garbage time. Dak Prescott struggled in his return to action going 19-of-39 for a 24.2 Total QBR and an interception. Denver also outrushed Dallas 190-78. Denver had lost four of five before this performance, which adds to the wonkiness.

Caden Sterns INT vs Dallas
Broncos rookie safety Caden Sterns intercepts Cowboys QB Dak Prescott. Denver led Dallas 30-0 in the fourth quarter, before holding on for a stunning 30-16 victory on Sunday. (Screenshot: NFL on FOX)

The Bills continued their streak of looking bored, and playing down to their competition, but they legitimately looked sloppy. Jaguars young pass rusher Josh Allen outplayed the Bills rising star quarterback with the same name. Jacksonville’s Allen led his team with eight solo tackles, while victimizing Buffalo’s Allen for a sack, forced fumble and an interception. In such a ridiculous conference race, the Bills still look like a team talented enough to make the Super Bowl. While Buffalo and Dallas’ losses should raise some concern, both still seem like Super Bowl contenders. The Raiders, however, were exposed by a bad team with a solid defense. The Giants almost beat the Chiefs last Monday night with their defense. The G-Men forced three Raiders turnovers, including a Xavier McKinney pick-six of Derek Carr, and shut down Las Vegas’ offense in a classic “east coast team beats west coast team in early slate” result. The Giants’ tough, physical defense and home-field advantage in colder weather sort of exposed the good-but-not-great Raiders bunch.

Two wins that did not feel wonky, were blowout victories by the Patriots over Panthers, and the Browns over the Bengals. Both teams dominated on the road, and will face each other next Sunday at 1:00pm ET on CBS, but they also deserve their praise this week before looking ahead. The Patriots continued their dominance of Sam Darnold, who moved to 0-4 versus the Patriots in his career, with one touchdown and nine interceptions. Just like his time with the New York Jets, Darnold was again apparently “seeing ghosts” versus New England, throwing three ghastly interceptions, including a pick-six to Patriots cornerback J.C. Jackson, who is in for a huge payday this offseason (or franchise tag). Jackson had two interceptions on Sunday, and leads the league in interceptions (21) since coming into the league as an undrafted rookie in 2018.

On a personal level, being mostly from the New England area, but going to high school in North Carolina, these Patriots-Panthers matchups have always been a premier event for me. Both teams have usually sported physical squads in the years they’ve faced off, and this time was no different. Carolina’s defense is a solid unit, with players such as EDGE defender Brian Burns being a rising star, veteran linebacker Shaq Thompson being an enforcer on the second level, and now former Patriot Stephon Gilmore (who victimized his old team for an interception on Sunday) no in the backend. Carolina forced two New England turnovers, but allowed a season-high 151 yards on the ground to the Patriots committee of running backs. New England fared much better defensively. It helps that they their own game-wrecker on defense in Matthew Judon (9.5 sacks), as well as a future All-Pro caliber defensive tackle in Christian Barmore, who swarmed Darnold all game and knocked down a few of his passes (saving a touchdown to Christian McCaffrey on one). New England is still figuring things out, but they are tough, physical and a solid football team. They are playoff-caliber.

So are the Browns, who pushed the Odell Beckham Jr. fiasco to the recesses of their minds in time to destroy the Bengals in Cincinnati, which may be a huge result come January. Cleveland won 41-16 behind a near-flawless game from Baker Mayfield, who was precise, and a solid running game (153 yards, 6.7 YPC) and defense, with the latter tallying five sacks and forcing two turnovers off Bengals QB Joe Burrow. Myles Garrett leads the league with 12 sacks now, and is the clear front-runner for Defensive Player of the Year at the moment, if you asked me.

As mentioned above, Cleveland travels to New England this week for a massive AFC contest that could decide seeding come January.

I originally planned on taking my first crack at the NFL MVP award race here at midseason, but the race is so messy at the moment, that I think it’s best to wait until after Thanksgiving (post-Week 12) for my first top-five ranking. In the past few weeks, injuries, bad play or stupidity have lessened the chances of Derrick Henry, Dak Prescott, Kyler Murray, Tom Brady, Aaron Rodgers, Matthew Stafford, Josh Allen, Justin Herbert, Derek Carr, Joe Burrow and others from winning the award. Only Lamar Jackson improved his chances over the weekend, yet, I can’t tell you with certainty that I view him as the front-runner, as of now. This is such a wacky year. I think it’s best that we wait. (I promise this is is an act of intelligence, and not laziness on my part. The league is in a logjam, right now. Let’s wait for more answers).

THE BETTER HALF

1. Tennessee Titans (7-2) (Last week: 2). Their offense certainly misses Derrick Henry already, but we’ll give them credit here after that beatdown of the Rams in LA on Sunday night. This is a mentally and physically tough football team. Kudos, Mike Vrabel.

2. Tampa Bay Buccaneers (6-2) (Last week: 4). In a week such as this one, it makes sense that Tom Brady’s bunch moves up a few spots.

3. Arizona Cardinals (8-1) (Last week: 7). Kliff Kingsbury is probably the lead-dog in the Coach of the Year race, as of now. The Cardinals pantsed the 49ers on Sunday without their best players (Kyler Murray, DeAndre Hopkins, etc.).s

4. Los Angeles Rams (7-2) (Last week: 1). Their defense didn’t play too bad, and that’s without Von Miller suiting up. But Matthew Stafford’s terrible, back-to-back interceptions in the first half downed them early.

5. Baltimore Ravens (6-2) (Last week: 8). The Ravens have yet to play to their potential as a complete team, sans maybe their Week 6 blowout over the Chargers at home. They can play better defensively. Lamar Jackson and Justin Tucker have bailed this team out in the clutch in a couple of instances this season. Now they, just need to play better. They will.

6. Green Bay Packers (7-2) (Last week: 6). Aaron Rodgers’ disappointing handling of his COVID-19 vaccine situation (let’s face it, he lied, and his reasons for not getting the vaccine are asinine) certainly assists in putting lives at jeopardy, so let’s keep that in context when I say this here — Rodgers cost the Packers a win on Sunday night.This was a very winnable game for Green Bay, but Jordan Love simply wasn’t ready. The Packers defense played a fantastic game in Kansas City.

7. Buffalo Bills (5-3) (Last week: 3). No matter how you cut it, that was an inexcusable loss to one of the two or three worst teams in the league. They are one of the AFC’s best teams, but they need to get out of this funk. The Patriots are nipping at their heels in the AFC East, now.

8. Dallas Cowboys (6-2) (Last week: 6). Pretty shocking loss to the Broncos at home. Not much else to say. It seems like every contender will have a few stinkers this season. Let’s see how they respond.

9. Cleveland Browns (5-4) (Last week: 13). The Browns are one of the most talented teams in the NFL. They looked it on Sunday in Cincinnati.

10. Kansas City Chiefs (5-4) (Last week: 14). They’ve caught a few breaks versus the Giants and Packers at home to win. Now, they’ll go to Las Vegas for a Sunday night game will huge ramifications in the AFC West. They still don’t look right on offense, but wins are wins. They could make a run.

11. Pittsburgh Steelers (4-3) (Last week: 12). The Steelers host the Bears (3-5) in a very winnable game on Monday night.

12. New England Patriots (5-4) (Last week: 15). The Patriots improved to 4-0 on the road. They’re getting better as the season progresses after suffering a few close losses to possible Super Bowl contenders (Tampa Bay, Dallas) earlier. This 2021 New England team seems like a version of their 2001 squad that doesn’t win the Super Bowl.

13. New Orleans Saints (5-3) (Last week: 9). They should be higher, but their QB situation may turn into a real problem despite Trevor Siemian’s noble attempt in these past two games.

14. Los Angeles Chargers (5-3) (Last week: 16). Justin Herbert bounced back nicely in Philadelphia. That was a much-needed clutch win on the road.

15. Las Vegas Raiders (5-3) (Last week: 10). That was an ugly loss to the Giants that should have been a bit predictable. These Raiders have some juice on offense, even if it’s just Derek Carr and scheme, and a lack of overall star power, but they will struggle versus tougher teams (in terms of talent, and toughness) on the road. We’ll see if DeSean Jackson becomes a legitimate deep threat for them when he joins this week.

16. Cincinnati Bengals (5-4) (Last week: 11). The Bengals are probably not complete frauds. Joe Burrow and Ja’Marr Chase are stars, no question, and Zac Taylor’s bunch has mostly improved on defense, but that side of the ball has looked ugly in their last two losses. They seem like a “next year” team. They’re almost there.

Next Up: Indianapolis, Minnesota, Denver, Atlanta, Seattle

Josh Allen vs Chiefs -- Week 5

NFL Friday Madness: Breaking down the AFC’s early-season contenders

Week 5 of the 2021 NFL season featured a slew of missed kicks, exciting finishes, and an overarching changing-of-the-guard storyline in the AFC, as the conference dominated by the likes of the New England Patriots, Pittsburgh Steelers for most of the 21st century, and the Kansas City Chiefs recently, will seemingly be lead by some of the league’s most talented teams in the Buffalo Bills, Los Angeles Chargers and Cleveland Browns (huh?!) in 2021.

Buffalo looks like the NFL’s best and most complete team after bolstering their pass rush this offseason, with rookie first-round pick Gregory Rosseau (6-foot-6, 267 pounds) leading the charge for that unit.

In Kansas City last Sunday night, Buffalo forced four Patrick Mahomes turnovers and Josh Allen amassed 374 total yards and four touchdowns and a 91.6 Total QBR with no turnovers and no sacks.

Buffalo manhandled Kansas City.

With the Chiefs driving, down 31-13 to the Bills with just under three minutes to play in the third quarter, Rosseau tipped a pass to himself at the line of scrimmage for a Bills interception, prompting the thought of the night by NBC‘s Chris Collinsworth.

“When we get to the end of the season, we’re going to look back on this night and say ‘this is the night a lot of things changed in the AFC,” Collinsworth said.

After losing twice to the Chiefs last year, including in the AFC title game, Buffalo has already leapfrogged the conference powerhouse in October as the conference’s lead dog.

Behind them, there’s the Ravens, where Lamar Jackson is carrying the Ravens to last-second, comeback wins, and throwing the ball with authority, pitting him with the likes of Josh Allen at the top of any too-early MVP award discussions.

Justin Herbert is having a similar, red-hot start to the season for the Chargers, who outlasted the Browns, 47-42 last Sunday, and defeated the Chiefs in Kansas City in a tight contest in Week 2.

The Browns, who also blew a Week 1 game in Kansas City in addition to their similar, late-game letdown to the Chargers, may be the most talented team in the conference.

Myles Garrett is the early-season leader for Defensive Player of the Year, and the Browns as a team lead the NFL in rushing (187.6 yards per game) with Nick Chubb and Kareem Hunt leading the way behind a monstrous, guiding-light offensive line that was put together in the 2020 offseason, and now on Year 2 of their dominance.

Really, the Chiefs, despite their 2-3 mark, lack of a running game, and porous defense from all angles, should still be considered a contender as long as Patrick Mahomes is leading the offense with Travis Kelce and Tyreek Hill as his top targets.

But Kansas City is missing additional pass catchers, or a running game, to help take the pressure off Mahomes, who is seeing a litany of two-high coverages, whether it’s 2-man or Cover-2, that have taken away the Chiefs’ usual downfield chunk plays, forcing them to run the ball or produce long drives, while pressuring Mahomes and forcing him out of the pocket.

To put the Chiefs offense in perspective, they are still the No. 1-ranked offense by Football Outsiders‘ DVOA metric, but Mahomes has less 20-yard completions than the likes of Mac Jones and Jared Goff.

The Chiefs are virtually three games behind the Chargers considering their Week 2 loss, but there is more than enough time to make up ground.

But really, they look like a wild card bunch at best this year, with a new basket of quarterbacks leading more complete teams to victory.

The Chargers do look primed to win the AFC West.

Herbert’s deep-ball has led to a Mike Williams renaissance as a perimeter receiver and deep threat. Running back Austin Ekeler and route-running genius Keenan Allen are mismatches for defenses in the shallow and intermediate levels of the field. And under new head coach Brandon Staley’s Cover-3 style defense brought over from the Rams, the Chargers have looked much better on defense, save for their game versus Cleveland. Joey Bosa is one of the best pass rushers in football, and Derwin James is the perfect roaming athlete for such a scheme in the secondary.

Still, while putting the Chargers and Chiefs aside, and with no mention of the still-tough Tennessee Titans, who look locked into the AFC South title, it still appears both the Ravens and Browns appear like the best long-term threats to Buffalo this season.

Each has a bludgeoning running game.

We mentioned Cleveland above, but Baltimore, with a sturdy offensive line and a litany of additional blockers (Mark Andrews, Nick Boyle, Patrick Ricard) at tight end, H-back and fullback, has the perfect mix of old-school blocking with and new-age finesse with Lamar Jackson shredding defenses on designed runs behind a traditional and yesteryear blocking front.

Despite the great coaching from the likes of Staley and Kevin Stefanski in Cleveland, John Harbaugh and the Ravens are more experienced. They’ve been one of the league’s most consistent franchises this century, and that seems to carry them to a Super Bowl run at least once per decade. That could be this year.

All this is said to lead to this — the AFC has regained power over the NFC as the league’s top conference overall. And this deep group includes talented teams of all types, with different schemes, concepts and strengths.

The Bills are in charge now, but there are several teams right there, and even with their struggles, it’s too early to fully give up on the Chiefs.

Let’s check back on this group after Thanksgiving.

THE BETTER HALF

1. Buffalo Bills (4-1) (Last week: 1). They’re the best team in football right now. No question. The only things missing last year were their running game, pass rush and ability to defend Mahomes and Kansas City. They’ve figured out all three things, it seems.

2. Tampa Bay Buccaneers (5-1) (Last week: 2). Despite all the fuss regarding Allen, Jackson, Herbert, Kyler Murray and Matthew Stafford, it’s 44-year-old Tom Brady, who through six games has looked on a mission (2,064 yards, 17 touchdowns, three interceptions, two game-winning drives), that is the MVP leader at this point. It’s early, though.

3. Arizona Cardinals (5-0) (Last week: 3). Arizona faces a tall task in Cleveland this week. How well can this reimagined defense defend the Browns’ top-ranked rushing attack?

4. Los Angeles Rams (4-1) (Last week: 4). They should take care of the Giants this weekend. They were the talk of the league two weeks ago. Things change quickly. They’re a season-long contender in the NFC.

5. Los Angeles Chargers (4-1) (Last week: 9). They’re winning the close contests that used to bring them heartbreak. This is a different team.

6. Baltimore Ravens (4-1) (Last week: 6). They’ve escaped with wins over the Lions and Colts that they certainly should have lost. They’ll get it together. Lamar Jackson has been awesome as a passer so far this season.

7. Green Bay Packers (4-1) (Last week: 7). They’re kind of on autopilot at this point, but we know they can compete with anyone in the conference as long as Aaron Rodgers is under center.

8. Cleveland Browns (3-2) (Last week: 5). They easily could be 5-0. They certainly should be at least 4-1. They have the recipe to be a Super Bowl winner, but they need to figure out how to win those close games versus good teams. Baker Mayfield needs to do better in the clutch. They’ll be without Nick Chubb this weekend, but with Kareem Hunt, they have enough to beat Arizona. This is a big game for them.

9. Dallas Cowboys (4-1) (Last week: 10). The NFC East is clearly theirs, but the Cowboys haven’t beaten the Patriots since 1996, and they are 0-5 versus Bill Belichick. The TV-ratings game of the week will be a fun pitting of a successful pass offense versus a well-coached, usually-sound defense.

10. Tennessee Titans (3-2) (Last week: 14). Like the Packers, they feel very auto-pilot-y, but they, too, have the strengths (Derrick Henry, running game) to be a force come playoff time. They need to figure things out on defense, though.

11. Kansas City Chiefs (2-3) (Last week: 8). The offensive line and running game will improve as the season goes along, which will open things up for Mahomes and company for their deep passing game. It’s not time to panic, yet. They definitely don’t look like a Super Bowl team this season, though.

12. New Orleans Saints (3-2) (Last week: NR). They’re a solid football team that would be even better with a more consistent quarterback. They’ll mostly live and die with Jameis Winston.

13. Chicago Bears (3-2) (Last week: NR). The Bears have won three of four, and Justin Fields is now getting his reps. Things are going well, for now.

14. Las Vegas Raiders (3-2) (Last week: 11). With Jon Gruden out of the picture, what happens next? Will they fall apart? Or will they rally around their team?

15. San Francisco 49ers (2-3) (Last week: 13). Bad injury luck is mounting again. This is a good football team, but it’s tough competing in the NFC West. Trey Lance was my favorite quarterback in this past draft, and he still is, but he clearly needs time to develop.

16. Carolina Panthers (3-2) (Last week: 15). That was a rough home loss to the Eagles. That was maybe a sign that they aren’t quite ready to compete in the playoffs like we thought they were. Sam Darnold is still much better than we thought he was, but cracks are starting to reappear. They have a huge game at home this week versus the Vikings. This one could decide a wild card spot come January.

Next Up: Pittsburgh, Seattle, Cincinnati, Denver, Minnesota/Philadelphia

Derrick Henry vs Seahawks

NFL Monday Morning Madness Week 2: Drama-filled Sunday provides extra excitment

Week 2 in the NFL this season had a flair for the dramatic, with the late afternoon window in particular featuring wild finishes out west in Los Angeles, Arizona and Seattle. There’s still a few weeks left to play before any rash conclusions or predictions can be made, as many call September the “extended preseason.”

The Cowboys and Chargers in recent years are known for their knack of blowing big games, but each team was fairly competent in a close contest that ended in a game-winning, 56-yard field goal by Dallas kicker Greg Zuerlien.

Dak Prescott delivered in the fourth quarter for the second-straight week, and the Cowboys came away with a win this time around.

In Arizona, Kyler Murray added five more touchdowns, bringing his total to nine on the season, and firmly placing him near the top of any way-too-early MVP talk, along with Tom Brady.

But the Cardinals were lucky to come away with a win, as Kirk Cousins marched the Vikings down into field goal territory late, but Minnesota lost on a missed game-winning 37-yard field goal attempt from Greg Joseph, giving Arizona a 34-33 win, and allowing them to keep pace with better clubs in the Rams and 49ers.

The Titans and Seahawks seemed destined to play a wacky, down-to-the-wire game. The DNA of both teams usually calls for multiple double-digit fourth-quarter comebacks and comparable, gut-wrenching losses throughout the season. Sunday’s game in Tennessee didn’t disappoint, with Tennessee rallying from down 30-16 late to win 33-30 in overtime.

Leading the effort was the league’s premier bell-cow back, Derrick Henry, who amassed 237 total yards and three rushing touchdowns on 41 touches (35 carries). Henry remains one of the league’s toughest players to stop, and Seattle learned the hard way as Henry shook off a rough performance versus Arizona, in helping the Titans to a much-needed road win.

The late window, equipped with cheering fans, brilliant announcing, excitement and heartbreak felt like something we haven’t seen since the 2019 season.

Then, all those games were topped, by the Sunday night affair in Baltimore.

The Chiefs led 35-24 late before Lamar Jackson (16 carries, 107 rush yards, three total TDs) ran his way to a 36-35 lead that Baltimore held, thanks to their rookie first-round pick EDGE defender, Odafe Oweh, who stripped Kansas City running back Clyde Edwards-Helaire late after Patrick Mahomes drove them down in game-winning field goal range.

The Ravens averaged 6.1 yards per carry, and ran for 251 yards in total against a still-soft-up-the-middle Chiefs defense that relies heavily on their all-time great offense. They got burned today, but even with their flaws, they remain Super Bowl material.

Baltimore is beginning what could be a tough season-long race with the Cleveland Browns for the AFC North crown.

COVER 2

(Throughout the season, I’ll include this segment as a side-by-side form of ‘double coverage’ (pun intended) of both Bill Belichick’s New England Patriots, and Tom Brady’s Tampa Bay Buccaneers.)

PATRIOTS 25, JETS 6

In typical Bill Belichick-versus-rookie quarterback fashion, the Patriots defense gave Jets rookie quarterback Zach Wilson a tough time, forcing the No. 2 overall pick into four interceptions, some ghastly, in a solid road win in the AFC East for New England. Defensively, J.C. Jackson (two interceptions) and Jonathan Jones were particularly impressive in coverage, and Adrian Phillips and Ja’Whaun Bentley stood out on the TV tape as tough, gritty players who seemingly have benefited from experience in the system, and seemed primed to take a leap.

On offense, Mac Jones (28.4 Total QBR to Wilson’s 8.7) had a more tame (and maybe even uninspiring) performance than his overly-competent (for a rookie) NFL debut versus the Dolphins. The Jets defense held Jones and the passing game in check for much of the game, as Jones often looked for his checkdowns an held the ball for far too long on other occasions. Hunter Henry grabbed a 32-yard catch downfield on a schemed play-action shot that saw him wide open, but other than that, he and fellow newcomer tight end Jonnu Smith were once again quiet. The Patriots leader in both receptions (6) and receiving yards (45) was pass-catching running back James White. New England has a solid blueprint as a top-tier defense and running game, but the passing offense needs to be more than just adequate if they are to compete with the NFL’s best. Rest assured, Mac Jones will improve as he gains more NFL experience.

BUCCANEERS 48, FALCONS 25

Watching Tom Brady throw five more touchdown passes on Sunday versus Atlanta make you wonder: Is this the best he’s ever played? His physical peak has passed, yes, but he’s still displaying unbelievable arm talent at his age (44), and statistically, he could be headed for a 2007-level of dominance, with a 2007-esque dominant team to boot.

Tampa has won a franchise-record 10 straight games dating back to 10 months ago (November 2020), which includes the organization’s second Super Bowl title (Brady’s seventh). Brady, himself, has thrown for 17 touchdown passes in his last four games, and Rob Gronkowski, perhaps his favorite passing target ever, has caught two touchdowns from Brady in each of his last three games, dating back to Super Bowl 55.

This team is absolutely loaded, but they’ll face a big, big test this week in Los Angeles versus the Rams. This is a possible NFC Championship Game preview. Can the Bucs keep Brady upright versus Aaron Donald and that inside pressure-creating pass rush?

THE BETTER HALF

1. Tampa Bay Buccaneers (2-0) (Last week: 1). When all is said and done, will Tom Brady-to-Rob Gronkowski be the best, and most iconic passer-pass catcher combo in league history?

2. Los Angeles Rams (2-0). (Last week: 3). They showed their resolve by winning a wild back-and-forth affair in Indianapolis in the early window. Next up: Tom Brady and the Buccaneers. We’ll learn a bit next week.

3. Kansas City Chiefs (1-1) (Last week: 2). That offense masks a lot of issues, and if they don’t fumble late, it would have been much of the same on Sunday night. But they gave up an 11-point lead late to a team that ran the ball to re-take the lead, and win. Kansas City doesn’t need to have a Top-10 defense to win the Super Bowl, but the unit can’t be that bad.

4. San Francisco 49ers (2-0) (Last week: 7). This is a team that will figure it out, and become much better as the season goes along. They’re still winning while they learn, though. That’s scary.

5. Cleveland Browns (1-1) (Last week: 6). They let the pesky Texans hang around for far too long, but a win is a win.

6. Baltimore Ravens (1-1) (Last week: 10). The fourth time’s the charm for Lamar Jackson, who finally defeated Patrick Mahomes’ Chiefs. Baltimore has some defensive woes and mental lapses (occasional bad tackling, mistakes, etc.) to fix, but they are a real threat in the AFC.

7. Buffalo Bills (1-1) (Last week: 11). They took advantage of Tua leaving early, punishing the Dolphins 35-0. They were going to win this game no matter what.

8. Las Vegas Raiders (2-0) (Last week: NR). When he’s on, Derek Carr is one of the best pure passers in the league. That was on display in his de-facto game-clinching deep-heave TD pass to Henry Ruggs to beat Pittsburgh.

9. Arizona Cardinals (2-0) (Last week: 8). They are one of the league’s most exciting teams, and are led by one of the league’s most exciting players in Kyler Murray.

10. Seattle Seahawks (1-1) (Last week: 4). We mentioned Brady-to-Gronk earlier in here, but Russell Wilson to Tyler Lockett is another long-time dependable duo. They don’t get enough credit as a dangerous pairing. But still, that was a devastating loss for the Seahawks. That can’t happen.

11. New England Patriots (1-1) (Last week: 13). They’ll improve on offense as the season goes along. We’re still learning a lot about this team. Their defense is scary good.

12. Pittsburgh Steelers (1-1) (Last week: 5). Their defense is still solid. They missed T.J. Watt late in this game. Their offense, on the other hand, is a mess. They’ll have to lean on Najee Harris, their rookie running back.

13. Denver Broncos (2-0) (Last week: 14). The Broncos are quietly a home win over the lowly Jets from beginning the season at 3-0.

14. Tennessee Titans (1-1) (Last week: NR). They badly needed that win. Derrick Henry is still a force to be reckoned with.

15. Carolina Panthers (2-0) (Last week: NR). Could their defense actually be one of the league’s better units? Also, Sam Darnold looks comfortable here.

16. Dallas Cowboys (1-1) (Last week: NR). Their offense is a machine. Dak Prescott may be enough for Dallas to take the NFC East this year.

Next Up: Miami, New Orleans, Green Bay, L.A. Chargers, Washington

Lamar Jackson vs Titans — 2020 AFC Wild Card

NFL Wild Card Madness: Jackson’s first playoff win a new chapter of renewed Ravens-Titans rivalry

After a quarter of jawing back and forth, hard hits and the feel of a true playoff game reminiscent of the Ray Lewis-Eddie George, Ravens-Titans rivalry of the early 2000s, Baltimore quarterback Lamar Jackson found himself in a familiar place.

With Tennessee leading 10-0, and Jackson’s Baltimore-led offense struggling to play from behind, valid questions surrounding the 2019 NFL MVP’s ability to lead a comeback resurfaced.

After all, the Ravens had been the only team in the league over the last four years to not have a comeback win after trailing by 10 points or more.

With his usual-suspect, underwhelming perimeter pass catchers, and offensive game plan stalling, Jackson took matters into his own hands, improvising for an electrifying 48-yard touchdown run in the second quarter to tie the score at 10-10.

From there, Baltimore took the game over, finishing for 236 rushing yards, with 136 and a score coming from Jackson, the quarterback who had shaken off even his most ardent doubters this weekend.

“I’m happy for myself but I’m almost more happy for Lamar,” Baltimore cornerback Marlon Humphrey said after the game. “It sucks to be in his position at times that when you lose, it’s all his fault. It’s nobody else’s fault. It wasn’t the defense’s fault, it was Lamar’s fault. … He can play his heart out and some other guy is going to fall short. I know it’s a team game, but it seems like whenever it’s a loss, it’s always just his fault.”

This was an elating achievement for Jackson, and a Ravens squad that was on the brink of a hugely disappointing 2020 campaign before they righted the ship a little over a month ago.

In November, with the Ravens holding a 6-2 record, an ugly loss in the rain to the Cam Newton-led Patriots in New England sent Baltimore on a three-game losing streak — which included a devastating, bad-blooded overtime loss to the Titans — that put their playoff hopes in jeopardy.

But Baltimore responded with five straight wins, albeit mostly versus bottom-tier teams, to finish 11-5 leading up to Sunday’s battle in Tennessee.

But despite the incompetence of their opponents during their December stretch, Baltimore’s sheer dominance over their foes was enough to pick up on their signaled change. The Ravens averaged 37.2 points per game during that stretch, and in four of those five contests, they held their opponent to 17 points or less.

Baltimore’s offense began to resemble the uniquely dominant, Jackson-led rushing attack from 2019, while their defense returned to dominate lesser foes.

Well Tennessee, led by 2,000-yard rusher Derrick Henry, is hardly that of the Ravens’ recent opponents.

This offseason, the Ravens acquired three-time All-pro defensive lineman Calais Campbell and veteran defensive end Derek Wolfe exactly for this purpose. The Ravens improved from 21st to 12th in Football Outisders‘ Rush DVOA metric from 2019 to this season.

Yet, Campbell, and nose tackle Brandon Williams, missed the Week 11 meeting versus the Titans. So as part of their brutal November slump, Baltimore fell 30-24 in overtime to Tennessee behind Henry’s 133 rushing yards, and walk-off 29-yard scamper. Henry also ran for 195 yards in Tennessee’s playoff win in Baltimore last January.

On Sunday, with Campbell, Williams and Wolfe up front, Baltimore limited Henry to just 40 yards on 18 carries. In all, Tennessee rushed for just 51 yards on 22 carries.

“We played good team ball…We played with heart and emotion,” Calais Campbell told NFL dot com after the game. “[Henry] is a king, he’s a beast. 2,000 yards. But today, he’s not gonna’ run the ball. He’s not gonna’ run the ball…Respect is earned.”

That last part of Campbell’s quote was directed toward a rivlary-based question by NFL dot com’s Tom Pelissero. Everyone was aware of the rivalry renewed between two physical teams. Titans cornerback Malcolm Butler and Ravens head coach John Harbaugh jawing at midfield before their regular season battle. The Titans stomping on the Ravens logo after their November win.

So Baltimore, after this win, returned the favor by gathering on the Titans’ logo as Jackson left the field with almost 30 seconds remaining, joyfully running through the tunnel. Many, including former Baltimore safety Ed Reed on Twitter, took objection to the Ravens’s behavior after the win, but make no mistake, there was a lot on the line, including many egos, and the early-career legacy of Jackson.

In a physical battle of teams that despise each other, stopping the league’s best running back was an ego boost and massive moral victory in itself for the Ravens.

“They had a plan, and they executed their plan,” Henry told NFL dot com after the game. “All the credit goes to those guys, you know, of stopping the run. The last two times we had success and they had a plan to make sure we didn’t have success, and that’s what they did.”

After stopping Henry, the Ravens were able to limit the Titans’ deadly play-action passing game revolving around quarterback Ryan Tannehill and bully ball receiver A.J. Brown. (The Titans offense likes pounding the rock with Henry first, then opening up the passing game with play-action passes of both the traditional and bootleg variety.)

For the Titans, after finding success through the air early to take the 10-point lead, nothing worked as well as they would have liked it, and the Tennessee offense finished with just three more points over the final three quarters.

Baltimore 20-13 road victory was solidified after a late interception by cornerback Marcus Peters, who predictably jawed back at the Titans, in line with his boisterous personality.

These Ravens have a renewed swagger, and a sense of relief, after a hard-fought playoff win. But the Buffalo Bills, the AFC’s No 2 seed, are next. The Bills are undoubtedly the hottest team in the league over the last two-plus months, edging out the Ravens for that honor, but you’d be hard-pressed to find a member of Buffalo’s organization that would embrace Jackson and Baltimore hearing that.

*******

There’s five days until we’re back at it with the NFL’s Divisional Round, a weekend in which many think is pro football’s greatest event of the calendar year. Will there be a major upset? Which teams will move on? Here are my picks, equipped with a predicted score for each of the four contests.

L.A. Rams (No. 6 seed, 11-6) at Green Bay (No. 1 seed, 13-3), Saturday, 4:30 pm ET, FOX

If Aaron Rodgers is to win his second Super Bowl, this will likely be the toughest defense he faces in this year’s playoff journey. For Los Angeles, All-pro cornerback Jalen Ramsey can key on Green Bay All-pro receiver Davante Adams, forcing Aaron Rodgers to look elsewhere. The Rams’ defense is playing with some moxie, and will give Green Bay a tough battle in the frozen tundra. Still, no matter who starts at quarterback for the Rams, Jared Goff or John Wolford, Los Angeles will need brilliant and consistent play-action passing versus the inevitable box-stacking that Green Bay will implement on Rams running back Cam Akers after some early success. In theory, this game is trouble for Green Bay, but the Rams don’t have the quarterback play to do what’s needed here to pull the upset. PACKERS 26, RAMS 17

 Baltimore (No. 5 seed, 12-5) at Buffalo (No. 2 seed, 14-3), Saturday, 8:00 pm ET, NBC

Despite Lamar Jackson’s brilliant performance his first playoff win, it was easy to see some of the problems with Baltimore’s offense. If their running game gets even somewhat stalled, and the team falls behind, there’s not really enough in the passing game to expect Jackson to rally a team back, and continue a run to score 30-plus points. At least not against an opponent with the offensive firepower like Buffalo’s. Jackson really took over the game by improvising through the chaos, using his athleticism to get the Ravens to 20 points, while the Baltimore defense assisted. Baltimore should be OK in slowing down a Buffalo offense in the cold, seeing as they have a secondary to at least put somewhat of a stop to Josh Allen, Stefon Diggs and Buffalo’s high-flying offensive attack, but they won’t shut down the Bills entirely. Basically, if Buffalo can get on the board early, and somewhat limit the Baltimore rushing attack, then the Ravens will find themselves ironically in the same trouble they thought they were past last week. Baltimore needs to supply Jackson with more help at the wide receiver position. This game is a tough one to predict, and will likely revolve around several factors, including the not-yet-mentioned Baltimore pass rush getting to Allen. This seems like the Bills’ time. BILLS 23, RAVENS 20

Cleveland (No. 6 seed, 12-5) at Kansas City (No. 1 seed, 14-2), Sunday, 3:00 pm ET, CBS

Many are already reminiscing on the college battle between Baker Mayfield and Patrick Mahomes from 2016, which was a 66-59 Oklahoma victory over Texas Tech. In that game, the two quarterbacks combined for nearly 1,300 passing yards and threw for a total of 12 touchdown passes, with Mahomes running in two more scores. Don’t expect that type of firepower on Sunday, as the Browns would like to keep the game to a short one, running behind their improved offensive line and running backs Nick Chubb and former Chief Kareem Hunt. Technically, the Browns’ rushing attack should be of major cause for concern for a Kansas City defense that features a lot of holes. The Chiefs essentially rely on superstar defensive tackle Chris Jones and swiss-army-knife defensive back Tyrann Mathieu to do just enough to compliment Patrick Mahomes and the explosive Kansas City offense. As it always has been versus the Mahomes-Andy Reid Chiefs in the playoffs, Myles Garrett and the Browns defense will need to play a quarter or two stymying Mahomes before their eventual onslaught, and Baker Mayfield will need to make the necessary third-down throws when called upon. That’s a lot to ask. CHIEFS 34, BROWNS 24

Tampa Bay (No. 5 seed, 12-5) at New Orleans (No. 2 seed, 13-4), Sunday, 6:30 pm ET, FOX

The game of the week sees Tom Brady’s Buccaneers hoping to send Drew Brees into retirement by avoiding a third beatdown in one season by the way of the talented Saints. The indoor setting should make for a point-filled game, even with two good defenses in play. Drew Brees has a truncated field due to his inability to consistently throw deep, leaving the offense to revolve heavily on Alvin Kamara in the running and passing game, with Michael Thomas over the middle on seam and post routes. For Tampa, if the Saints can get pressure on Brady with just four like they did in their last meeting, it will be tough for the GOAT to get the ball to his offensive weapons, no matter how star-studded his arsenal is. It’s not an overstatement to say these are the NFC’s two most talented teams. This will be a close one, and call me Brady-biased, but I think third time’s a charm for Tampa. BUCCANEERS 34, SAINTS 31

Lamar Jackson — 2020 vs Chiefs

NFL Tuesday Morning Madness Week 3: Ravens’ big-game issues conjured up by Chiefs

Three plays into the most hyped-up Monday Night Football matchup in years, Lamar Jackson was doing Jackson things — taking off and scampering down the sideline for a 30-yard run. Five plays later, the Ravens had a red zone first down, and were ready to begin what should have been a demon-exercising night with an emphatic touchdown drive.

They settled for a field goal. Then, Patrick Mahomes happened. 517 total yards, five total touchdowns and an absurd 97.7 Total QBR helped lead the Chiefs to a 34-20 win in Baltimore that resembled just about every other win by Kansas City in the Mahomes era.

This is nothing for these Chiefs, who are clearly not only the defending Super Bowl champions, but the league’s front runner once more after three weeks.

Who will stop the Chiefs? Will it be Bill Belichick and the New England Patriots on Sunday?

We know it won’t be the Ravens. Not until they fix their big game woes.

Jackson’s Ravens aren’t just 0-3 versus the Chiefs, they are also 0-10 when trailing at halftime since Jackson was drafted in 2018. Jackson mounted somewhat of a comeback on Monday, and drops by tight end Mark Andrews and others plagued him, but the reigning unanimous NFL MVP’s numbers — 97 passing yards on 28 attempts (3.8 average) — in a game that was going to need much more than that through the air is telling.

It’s not all on Jackson. Baltimore has a good group of tight ends, and Marquise Brown is a capable deep threat, but after that the Ravens are relying on the likes of Willie Snead and Myles Boykin on the perimeter.

Similar to what the Titans did in Jackson’s most devastating defeat last January, the Chiefs began flooding the line of scrimmage, forcing Jackson to throw beyond the numbers on the outside to beat them. Jackson scrambled for some good gains, but he also scrambled when he didn’t need to.

The Ravens’ chaotic what-do-we-do-now offense was met by a QB who calmly leads a 500-yard offensive day like it’s nothing, even in big games. This wasn’t necessarily a big game for the Chiefs. It was for the Ravens. And Baltimore emphatically fell short in the spotlight yet again.

The Ravens will be in the postseason in January, where they’ll once again be met by a stellar opponent on a national stage in a must-win contest. What then?

THE BETTER HALF

1. Kansas City Chiefs (3-0) (Last week: 1). Can they be stopped? This offense is literally unfair. Let’s see how Bill Belichick and the Patriots fare this Sunday.

2. Green Bay Packers (3-0) (Last week: 4). With guys like Russell Wilson and Josh Allen stealing the headlines, it’s easy to overlook how special Aaron Rodgers has been through three games — 9 TD, 0 INT, 90.6 Total QBR. The Packers are quietly the best team in the NFC as we enter October. Of course, that doesn’t mean much, but it’s a start. Just think of how we viewed Rodgers and the Packers just two months ago?

3. Seattle Seahawks (3-0) (Last week: 5). The defense is more of a problem then people are realizing, but who cares when Russell Wilson — 14 TD, 1 INT (not his fault), 76.7 completion percentage — is playing as is. It’s too early, but it feels like this could be the year Wilson gets back to the Super Bowl.

4. Pittsburgh Steelers (3-0) (Last week: 6). Ben Roethlisbeger looks pretty spry for an oft-injured, 38-year-old QB coming off a season-ending injury. And then there’s the defense. Don’t sleep on the Steelers.

5. Baltimore Ravens (2-1) (Last week: 2). In case you missed the lead at the beginning of the column — Lamar’s Ravens are not only 0-3 versus Mahomes’ Chiefs, Baltimore is also 0-10 when trailing at halftime since Jackson was drafted in 2018. When they fall behind, they have trouble winning through the air. Jackson is improving as a passer, so this isn’t a complete indictment on him. They need help at the WR position. This loss certainly hurt their morale. They’re too good not to be in the mix come January, but there’s a pattern with the Jackson-era Ravens thus far. Can they win in January? They have much to prove.

6. Buffalo Bills (3-0) (Last week: 7). Josh Allen has been otherworldly these first three weeks. The Bills seem eager to prove themselves as contenders in the early going.

7. New England Patriots (2-1) (Last week: 9). Cam Newton and the defense got off to a rocky start, and then all of the sudden the Patriots are doing Patriots things again — forcing turnovers, scoring defensive touchdowns, rushing for 250 yards — even without Tom Brady. The fact that New England could blow the Raiders out that way on a B-/C+ day for them says something. They’ll need an A+/A effort to win in Kansas City next week. They can do it.

8. Tennessee Titans (3-0) (Last week: 12). Three weeks, three game-winning field goals for kicker Stephen Gostkowski. The Titans are proving to be one of the league’s toughest teams once again — both physically and mentally.

9. New Orleans Saints (1-2) (Last week: 3). It’s becoming clear this should be Drew Brees’ final season, but we can’t rule them out just yet. Not with all that talent. Let’s wait until Michael Thomas comes back into the fold.

10. Los Angeles Rams (2-1) (Last week: 8). They should have won the game in Buffalo, but anytime you go down 28-3, there’s room for concern. They are a good-but-not-great team.

11. San Francisco 49ers (2-1) (Last week: 11). The 49ers are about as injury depleted as it gets. Kyle Shanahan is one of the NFL’s top coaches, so maybe they stay afloat until Jimmy Garoppolo returns to give them some sense of normalcy. It just doesn’t feel like their year, but they won’t go down without a fight.

12. Tampa Bay Buccaneers (2-1) (Last week: 14). The offense is slowly gaining steam. Tom Brady looked good in Denver. But they’ve beaten up on bad or severely injured teams these past two weeks. We’ll pass on any rash judgements on their season for now.

13. Indianapolis Colts (2-1) (Last week: NR). Phillip Rivers has been much better these past two weeks. The Colts have one of the league’s better rosters. If Rivers isn’t completely washed, they have a good shot at an AFC wild card spot. They’ll be in the mix.

14. Arizona Cardinals (2-1) (Last week: 10). The Lions are tough, so this wasn’t as bad a loss as it seems, but it was telling. Three more touchdowns by Kyle Murray were with met with three ugly turnovers. Let’s see how they respond after a bad loss.

15. Chicago Bears (3-0) (Last week: 16). The Bears are definitely the flimsiest 3-0 team in the league, but with Nick Foles now at the helm, perhaps anything is possible.

16. Dallas Cowboys (1-2) (Last week: 13). The offense showed up to the party late the last two weeks. It’s clear they have the talent to get going as the season progresses with that star-studded unit. Their defense, however, has been a major disappointment.

Next up: Las Vegas, Cleveland, Detroit, Miami, L.A. Chargers

Lamar Jackson vs Rams

Brent Schwartz’s Top 100 NFL Players of 2020

For the third straight year, I bring you, my Top 100 players list. Well, I made a Top 50 in 2019, but since increased my strenuous research project by double, as I watch film, sort players and give my takes on a piece that I begin around March or April every year, finishing up in the summer.

As we enter uncharted territory with the beginning of team training camps this week in a COVID-19 climate, there’s no telling if this season can safely be played, or if it will be, at this moment. This aims to be the weirdest season in NFL history, but it appears we will have a season nonetheless.

Before diving into the list, here are some notes:

— As it’s always been with this list, my criteria in ranking players 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 2020.

— Here are the teams with the most players on my list: 

Kansas City Chiefs (6)

Tamps Bay Buccaneers (6)

Minnesota Vikings (6)

Baltimore Ravens (5)

New Orleans Saints (5)

Philadelphia Eagles (5)

Los Angeles Chargers (5)

San Francisco 49ers (4)

New England Patriots (4)

Dallas Cowboys (4)

Seattle Seahawks (4)

Pittsburgh Steelers (4)

Tennessee Titans (4)

 The Kansas City Chiefs are also the team featuring the most top-tier players. They have four in my Top 26. The Saints are the only other team with more than two players in the top 30, with three in my Top 24.

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

Quarterback (13)

Running Back (11)

Wide Receiver (19)

Tight End (4)

Tackle (5)

Guard (2)

Center (1)

Defensive Tackle (6)

EDGE (16)

Linebacker (4)

Cornerback (8)

Safety (11)

The stand-out positions of this list are EDGE defenders (16), wide receivers (19) and running backs (11). There is a nice blend of over-30 veterans (Cameron Jordan, Von Miller, J.J. Watt, Calias Campbell, etc.) mixed with promising young talent (Nick Bosa, Myles Garrett, T.J. Watt, Joey Bosa, etc.) when it comes to edge setters, making it one of the most exciting positions. Few athletes are as exciting as NFL wide receivers, which is the group with the most volume on my list. I had to squeeze out some second-year players at the position. Last year was a promising rookie class (Deebo Samuel, Terry McLaurin, D.K. Metcalf, etc.), but only the Titans’ A.J. Brown made my list. This year’s rookie wide receiver class is projected to be even better. As for running backs, most in the NFL world agree that it is not wise to pay one after he’s been heavily used for a few seasons. The position has been devalued to that of a phone booth or horse and buggy in today’s game, but I see sort of a renaissance mixed with new-school flavor at the position. In all, 11 running backs made my list, which includes old school-style runners (Derrick Henry, Ezekiel Elliott), new-age, dual-threat wizards (Christian McCaffrey, Alvin Kamara) and everything in between (Saquon Barkley).

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

Kyler Murray, QB, Arizona Cardinals 

Matthew Stafford, QB, Detroit Lions

A.J. Green, WR, Cincinnati Bengals

Arik Armstead, EDGE, San Francisco 49ers

D.J. Moore, WR, Carolina Panthers

Terry McLaurin, WR, Washington

Kirk Cousins, QB, Minnesota Vikings

Marshon Lattimore, CB, New Orleans Saints

Xavien Howard, CB, Miami Dolphins

Darius Slay, CB, Philadelphia Eagles

T.Y. Hilton, WR, Indianapolis Colts

Trey Flowers, EDGE, Detroit Lions

Mark Andrews, TE, Baltimore Ravens

Allen Robinson, WR, Chicago Bears

Bradley Chubb, EDGE, Denver Broncos

Joe Thuney, OG, New England Patriots

Demarcus Lawrence, EDGE, Dallas Cowboys

Demario Davis, LB, New Orleans Saints

La’el Collins, OT, Dallas Cowboys

Tyron Smith, OT, Dallas Cowboys

Leighton Vander Esch, LB, Dallas Cowboys

Chris Harris Jr. , CB, Los Angeles Chargers

Deebo Samuel, WR, San Francisco 49ers

D.K. Metcalf, WR, Seattle Seahawks

— As you’ll notice, I have A.J. Green — Green missed all of 2019 — barely missing the cut, but have Rob Gronkowski, who sat out in 2019 and has since returned from retirement, narrowly making the list. Although the shear talent and fit of A.J. Green with Joe Burrow, combined with my 30 percent aspect (potential) of the rule above, suggests Green should be heavily considered, there are more deserving players due to their respective play the last year or two, combined with their potential going forward. Considering his age and position, I’d like to see Green on the field first. Green is a soon-to-be-32-year-old wide receiver who sat out last year. Gronk, who is 31 years old himself, makes the list mostly for his consistency as possibly the best blocking tight end of all-time, combined with his rapport with Tom Brady. I’ll explain more in the list.

— I also decided to leave Philadelphia Eagles stalwart guard Brandon Brooks off the list. Brooks, who turns 31 next month, had the best year of his career last season. He was graded as the top guard in the league by PFF, with emphasis on his run blocking grade, which also led the league. When I began conducting research, watching film, and generally molding this list back in April, Brooks was initially in my Top 50. However, Brooks tore his left Achilles in June during an offseason workout, and is now expected to miss the entire 2020 season. The Eagles guard also tore his other Achilles back in 2018, and already had underwent shoulder surgery this offseason. Brooks is certainly one of the best guards in football, but considering he won’t be playing this season, I decided to leave him off. Considering his age and injury status, it will be tough for Brooks to return to his past level of play, but I wouldn’t count him out. Brooks is already looking forward to 2021.

— Another curious case, and omission, is Antonio Brown. There is no doubt in my mind that Antonio Brown could sign with a team next week, suit up this season, and be a top-five wide receiver. He’s THAT talented. If his situation weren’t as is, I’d probably include him in my top 25 or 30. That being said, considering he’s not signed — and even if he were, he would be facing a suspension — and he recently announced his retirement (again) before turning back on his decision (again), I decided to leave him off for now. It doesn’t necessarily feel like he’s a part of the NFL community at the moment, even if he’s been seen working out with Russell Wilson, garnering interest from the Seahawks and Ravens, and together with Tom Brady, holding out hope for a one-year deal with Tampa Bay.

And now, without further ado, the list…

*******

100. Cooper Kupp Cooper Kupp – WR, Los Angeles Rams (Last year: NR)            

A slot magician, Kupp has proven valuable to Sean McVay’s offense in Los Angeles. In 2018, the offense struggled down the stretch when Kupp was lost to injury. For an offensive unit that once held Todd Gurley, Brandin Cooks and Robert Woods as playmakers, Kupp is perhaps the most important to Jared Goff’s success. Kupp is Goff’s safety blanket. He caught 10 touchdowns in 2019 in a comeback effort.

99. Lavonte David Lavonte David – LB, Tampa Bay Buccaneeers (Last year: NR) 

David was one of the league’s best off-ball linebackers last season under new defensive coordinator Todd Bowles. The 30-year-old was in the honorable mention portion of this list last season, but deserves to be here now. He has another year or two of dominance left in him. Last season, he ranked third among linebackers, according to Pro Football Focus

98. DeVante Parker DeVante Parker – WR, Miami Dolphins (Last year: NR) 

After four lackluster years, Parker finally pulled through as a legitimate No. 1 receiver in Year 5, just in time to ink a lucrative extension with the Dolphins. The 6-foot-3, X-type receiver pulled down 1,202 yards and nine touchdowns last year, and gave Patriots cornerback Stephon Gilmore — the Defensive Player of the Year in 2019 — fits in a Week 17 performance that saw Parker snag eight catches for 137 yards on 11 targets, mostly working against the NFL’s best cornerback. To mention a fw extraordinarily hard omissions on the list, Parker essentially edged out Bengals wide receiver A.J. Green, a three-time All-Pro X-receiver who will turn 32 at the end of July, and Panthers up-and-coming No. 1 wide receiver D.J. Moore. That’s saying something. Whether it’s Ryan Fitzpatrick or Tua Tagovailoa throwing him the football, Parker should continue to improve.

97. Jadeveon Clowney Jadeveon Clowney  – EDGE, Tennessee Titans (Last year: 42)

Clowney, 27, still has the potential to be a game wrecker, but only shows it sparingly. He had a couple of monstrous games in Seattle, but ultimately finished the season with just three sacks, as the Seahawks ranked 29th in total sacks. It was a close call, but Clowney edged out Jaguars EDGE Yannick Ngakoue, a player with a lot of potential that should continue to flourish elsewhere (he won’t be in Jacksonville much longer) but his best season remains his 2017 campaign. Ngakoue has tallied 37.5 sacks in his four seasons, but was a mess against the run last year, ranking 95th out of 103 EDGE defenders in PFF’s run defense grade (51.6) in 2019. Clowney was stellar against the run last year, garnering a 80.8 grade in the same stat. And it’s worth noting that Clowney has had major success pressuring the quarterback (58 pressures in 2019), regardless of his sack numbers. Judging EDGE defenders solely off sacks will leave you with misleading information on said player.

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

Hayward turns 31 in September, but remains one of the most reliable players in football. He was expected to take a dip in 2019, but instead finished as the No. 3 cornerback in football according to PFFAlthough he will decline at somepoint (maybe this season), he’s still one of the better cover men in the NFL.

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

Ertz will turn 30 in November, but remains one of the best pass-catching tight ends in the league. He’s capable of playing in-line, flexed in the slot, or out wide. He’s brought in 204 catches the last two seasons, and remains one of the more reliable third-down converters in football.

94. Shaquil BarrettShaquil Barrett – EDGE, Tampa Bay Buccaneers (Last year: NR) 

After being franchise tagged by the Bucs this offseason, Barrett will look to duplicate his success from last season, where he led the league in sacks (19.5). He has room for improvement as an edge-setting run defender, and will have to show that he is a consistent force as a stand-up pass rusher in 2020, but it’s clear the talent is there to continuously improve.

93. Rob GronkowskiRob Gronkowski – TE, Tampa Bay Buccaneers (Last year: NR)

Gronk’s dominance as a pass-catcher finally came to an end in 2018, but there’s little doubt that he’ll still be a threat in the middle of the field. He certainly should at least regain his claim as the best blocking tight end in football. Even at age 31, and while coming out of retirement, he’s a top-three tight end. Thanks to their chemistry, Gronkowski’s potential is maximized with Brady throwing him the football.

92. Devin McCourtyDevin McCourty – S, New England Patriots (Last year: NR)

Even entering his age-33 season, McCourty remains one of the most reliable safeties in the league. He’s classified as a free safety, and although he does often defend the deep end, McCourty also spends a lot of time in the box in Bill Belichick’s three-safety scheme. His free safety-to-box-safety snap count in 2019 was 467 to 343, according to PFF. McCourty has also thrived as a man coverage defender against athletic tight ends, at times. It’s no wonder New England decided to extend the veteran on a two-year deal, even at his age.

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

In 2017, Smith was the top-graded safety in the NFL by Pro Football FocusTwo seasons later, Smith remained the third-highest graded safety in the league at age 30. Entering his age-31 season, he remains a consistent force in the Vikings’ defense, capable of playing as a deep-defending free safety, or in the box.

90. Marcus PetersMarcus Peters – CB, Baltimore Ravens (Last year: NR)

Known for his aggressive, play-making style — often with the risk of allowing big plays — Peters has found the perfect home in Baltimore. Peters was PFF’s No. 3-graded cornerback in 2019, and second-best man coverage cornerback, while also leading the league with three pick-sixes. His seven career defensive touchdowns are the most in the NFL since 2015.

89. Kenny Golladay Kenny Golladay – WR, Detroit Lions (Last year: NR)

Former NFL safety and current ESPN NFL film analyst Matt Bowen says Kenny Golladay has top-five upside as a WR1 in fantasy leagues this season. Pro Bowl stats or not, the 6-foot-4 receiver has proven to be a valuable piece on the perimeter for the Lions, showcased by his 18.3 yards per catch (third best in the NFL) last season. He’s one of the more underrated pass catchers in the league, as he’s not often talked about despite also garnering two consecutive 1,000 yard seasons and a 11-touchdown campaign in 2019.  His best is yet to come.

88. Anthony HarrisAnthony Harris – S, Minnesota Vikings (Last year: NR)

Harris was PFF‘s top-graded safety last year (both overall and in coverage) as well as their No. 3-graded safety the year before (2018). With Smith playing more of a strong safety role, Harris mans the deep end as one of the NFL’s best free safeties over the past two seasons.

87. Dak Prescott  Dak Prescott – QB, Dallas Cowboys (Last year: NR)

After a last-minute scramble for a long-term contract fell short before the July 15th deadline (contract extension for franchise-tagged players), one of the league’s better quarterbacks will now be playing on the franchise tag.

With a steady offensive line, Ezekiel Elliot, and a projected top-tier wide receiver trio (Amari Cooper, Michael Gallup, CeeDee Lamb), Prescott is in position to have a career year. He ranked fourth in ESPN‘s Total QBR stat (70.2) last year. Dak also ranked among the top four in 2016 and 2017.

86. Josh Allen Josh Allen – EDGE, Jacksonville Jaguars (Last year: NR)

As a rookie, last year’s No. 7 overall pick tallied 10.5 sacks on a morbidly-deteriorating defense. There’s much room for improvement, and if Yannick Ngakoue doesn’t suit up for the Jaguars, there will be even more attention on the talented Allen, but his skill set puts him in great position going forward. There’s a superstar wave of young EDGE defenders in the likes of Nick Bosa, Myles Garrett and T.J. Watt, who all shine in both pass rushing and run defense. There’s potential for Allen, and maybe the Broncos’ Bradley Chubb, to soon join that group.

 

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

Even entering his age-34 season, Edelman remains one of the NFL’s best slot receivers and reliable options on key third-downs and other clutch situations.

Last season, in a bottom-level passing offense in which he was the only reliable non-James White target, Edelman’s stat line was almost identical to DeAndre Hopkins, with 100 catches for a career-high 1,117 receiving yards and six scores (and a passing touchdown!). It’ll be interesting monitoring Edelman’s production with likely new starter Cam Newton now at the helm in New England.

84. Austin Ekeler Austin Ekeler – RB, Los Angeles Chargers (Last year: NR)

Ekeler wowed analysts and fantasy football owners alike in 2019, garnering 993 receiving yards and eight receiving touchdowns on 92 catches. Ekeler also showcased his rushing ability in a four-game stretch to begin the year in which he filled in for Melvin Gordon as the Chargers’ starting running back.

Ekeler is certainly capable of slotting into a Christian McCaffrey-type role within the Chargers offense, as a do-it-all offensive weapon worthy of 20-plus carries a game, and the ability to be a factor in the passing game, even when aligning as a receiver in shotgun formations.

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

In 27 starts with the 49ers (including playoffs), Jimmy Garoppolo is 21-6 as a starter, while also leading his team to a Super Bowl in his first full season as an NFL starter.

Many may quibble with Garoppolo making this list, but he only stands to get better as he further removes himself from a torn ACL he suffered early in the 2018 season. Normally, it takes a quarterback a year to get back into the swing of things, in terms of pocket presence and mobility, after such an injury — See: the difference between Tom Brady’s 2009 and 2010 seasons after his brutal opening day ACL tear in 2008.

As Garoppolo gains experience in Kyle Shanahan’s system, the team will begin to rely more on his right arm, as opposed to some of the run-heavy game plans we saw during the 2019 playoffs, which includes a 49ers win in which Garoppolo attempted eight passes.

Despite the success of Shanahan’s outside zone rushing scheme, there were times where Garoppolo carried the team in the clutch, like in San Francisco’s 48-46 win in New Orleans.

Yes, he was underwhelming down the stretch of Super Bowl 54, which includes a missed throw on a possible touchdown pass to Emmanuel Sanders, but he only stands to learn from such an experience. His best days are ahead of him.

82. Tyler LockettTyler Lockett– WR, Seattle Seahawks (Last year: NR)

Since becoming one of Russel Wilson’s top targets as a rookie in 2015, only Tom Brady to Rob Gronkowski has been a more efficient connection than Wilson to Tyler Lockett.

As a quick route technician working out of the slot, Locket caught an absurd 74.8 percent of his passes in 2019.

Additionally, last season Wilson had a 125.9 passer rating when targeting Lockett, which was the second year in a row that number was above 125. When a play is needed, the most underrated quarterback in the NFL looks toward perhaps the league’s most underrated wide receiver.

81. A.J. Brown  A.J. Brown – WR, Tennessee Titans (Last year: NR)

The only 2019 rookie wide receiver to make this list, Brown hit the ground running as a bonafide No. 1 WR with size (6-foot-1, 226 pounds) and shiftiness. He led all wide receivers in yards after catch (YAC — 8.9) in 2019, demonstrating his ability to make plays with the football. That number, and his receiving ability in the intermediary part of the field on in-cutting routes, helped shape his phenomenal yards per catch (20.2), which was the league’s second-best mark (behind the Chargers’ Mike Williams).

As the best receiver out of a fun 2019 wide receiver class (D.K. Metcalf, Terry McLaurin, Deebo Samuel, etc.), Brown is player with All-Pro caliber potential going forward. Notice I said All-Pro, not Pro Bowl. There is a major difference between the distinctions, with the former being much more noteworthy.

80. Earl Thomas III Earl Thomas– S, Free Agent (Last year: 93)

Thomas found success in his lone season in Baltimore, holding down the backend as a free safety in the Ravens’ Cover 1-heavy scheme. Because of a training camp altercation with Chuck Clark — and presumably more conflict — the Ravens recently released Thomas, making him a quality free agent. He’s older now (age 31), but is still one of the best safeties in football in terms of range. His ability to go sideline to sideline while reading the quarterback is second only to Ed Reed this century.

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

Cooper remains one of the better playmakers at wide receiver due to his route-running ability. In his first full season with Dallas, he had the best season of his career. His rapport with Dak Prescott is something the Cowboys would like to capture for the long-term.

Dallas will attempt to lock up Prescott after the season after rewarding Cooper this offseason with a hefty five-year extension worth $100 million.

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

Wentz has yet to recapture the magic he had during his 2017 campaign, but he was certainly not in the best position to succeed last year. Due mostly to injuries, Philadelphia fielded a wide receiving core that rivaled New England’s as one of the more slower, inefficient groups.

With the return of DeSean Jackson, and additional speed at receiver (drafting of Jalen Reagor, John Hightower) added through the draft, Wentz is better equipped for success in 2020. We should expect him to improve mightily.

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

After having the best season of his career in 2018, Hicks’ play fell back from phenomenal to just, good, in 2019. He’s still one of the best overall defensive lineman in the NFL in the interior. He was great against the run last year for a defense that regressed some.

76.Cam Newton Cam Newton – QB, New England Patriots (Last year: 58)

Newton’s inconsistency, recent injury history and recent play are enough to leave him off this list.

But alas, the potential (30 percent!) of a 31-year-old, highly-motivated Newton with Bill Belichick is too strong. The 2015 NFL MVP signed perhaps the biggest bargain-bin contract in league history last month — a one-year, incentive-laden deal worth $7.5 million if all stipulations are met, but is otherwise a near-league minimum deal with a base salary of $1.05 million (550k guaranteed) for just the 2020 season.

Of course, he’ll technically need to beat out Jarrett Stidham in August for the starting job, but the job of replacing Tom Brady in New England — which sounds crazy to say — is essentially Newton’s. Look for a mix of Brady-era staples and some new principles (QB power, zone-read, pistol formation, etc.) from offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels this year.

Despite losing in his last eight starts, Newton is set up for success in New England and belongs on the list.

75. Justin SimmonsJustin Simmons – S, Denver Broncos (Last year: NR)

Simmons was a Second-team All-Pro in 2019, as well as the No. 2-graded safety in the NFL in both coverage and overall play, according to Pro Football FocusJohn Elway and the Broncos would be wise to lock him up to a long-term deal next offseason. Simmons is a cornerstone player for Denver, who has benefited greatly from his play in the backend. He’s a major part of their swift rebuild that may net a playoff spot in 2020.

74. Byron Jones Byron Jones – CB, Miami Dolphins (Last year: 88)

Dolphins head coach Brian Flores, a Bill Belichick disciple, is paying Byron Jones big money to fill the Stephon Gilmore role in Miami as a man coverage-based, No. 1 cornerback opposite fellow shutdown corner Xavien Howard (who is off the list in 2020 after a rough, injury-ridden 2019). Jones’ size and coverage skills make him the idea fit for this role. The UConn alum will help the lead the charge of the Dolphins’ new identity on defense.

73. Courtland SuttonCourtland Sutton  – WR, Denver Broncos (Last year: NR)

The 6-foot-4, 216 pound beast on the perimeter is the perfect No. 1 wide receiver for Drew Lock, who also has rookies Jerry Jeudy and K.J. Hamler, and tight end Noah Fant, to form a promising pass-catching nucleus behind the second-year quarterback and capable running back duo (Phillip Lindsay and Melvin Gordon).

Still, it’s Sutton who is the top playmaker on the team. He only played a few games with Lock down the stretch, yet still grabbed 1,112 receiving yards and six scores mostly with sub-par quarterback play throughout the year. He’s a prototypical, big-bodied X-receiver.

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

After missing virtually all of last season, Big Ben returns at age 38 to write the final chapter of his storied career. Will this be his last season? Or will he play a few more? His soon-to-be seventeenth season as quarterback with the Steelers put him tied for second all-time for most seasons at QB with one team, trailing only Tom Brady’s 20 years in New England.

But enough with the theatrics. Why does Ben belong on this list? Because he’s still a capable starting quarterback with top 10-value. He doesn’t need to be anywhere near that for the Steelers — a team that went 9-7 with awful QB play in 2019 — to succeed in 2020, but expect him to have a moderately successful comeback season nonetheless.

71. Chris GodwinChris Godwin – WR, Tampa Bay Buccaneers (Last year: NR)

Godwin, a 6-foot-1 playmaker who lines up mostly in the slot, was PFF‘s top-graded wide receiver in the NFL last season (90.7). Only Michael Thomas had a better PFF receiving grade.

With Tom Brady now at the helm in Tampa, it’ll be interesting to see how the 43-year-old works with Godwin, who is more of a downfield, Z/slot receiver with deep and intermediate ability, as opposed to a possession slot receiver that Brady is accustomed to working with. The GOAT’s arm will be tested.

Still, Godwin can also produce underneath, as evident by his 591 yards after the catch in 2019, a mark that led all wide receivers. At 24 years old, and entering just his fourth season, his best is likely to come.

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

With 303 catches in the last three seasons, Keenan Allen has shaken off early-career injuries to remain one of the most consistent playmakers in football.

At 6-foot-2, 210 pounds, he works mostly out of the slot as a route-running extraordinaire despite sub-par speed — at NFL standards —  for the position. He’s seems like an older age 28, considering he’s entering his eight season and has suffered some gruesome knee and kidney injuries, but he still has much more left in the tank.

He should once again be among the most-targeted pass catchers in football in 2020.

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

Bakhitiari remains one of the most reliable tackles in football. He ranked second in pass blocking grade in 2019, according to PFF. He’s one of the Packers’ cornerstone players, and will continue to be a force this season, as well as a reliable pass rush safeguard to Aaron Rodgers.

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

The Ravens, a team rich in defensive tradition, were able to build yet another formidable unit with much help from Humphrey, who has developed into one of the best young cornerbacks in the NFL. Last year he was one of the top cornerbacks in man coverage, both from the slot and the perimeter. The Ravens and the Patriots were in a tier of their own last season in terms of Cover 1 efficiency. But where New England often used a “robber” to take away crossing routes, Ravens cornerbacks often did not have that luxury, as Baltimore blitzed on 60 percent of their Cover 1 snaps. Humphrey proved his worth as a an excellent cover-man in 2019, earning him First-team All-Pro honors. He should only improve from here.

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

Schwartz, who has been named an All-Pro in each of the last four seasons, was snubbed from ESPN’s Top 10 tackles list (voted on by NFL scouts and front office personnel) despite remaining one of the most reliable offensive lineman in football. The 31-year-old is a fixture up front. As the great Tony Reali pointed out on Twitter recently, on 834 pass blocking plays in 2019, Schwartz allowed Patrick Mahomes to be touched just five times.

66. Stefon Diggs  Stefon Diggs – WR, Buffalo Bills (Last year: NR)

Diggs is on a short list with the league’s best route runners that includes Keenan Allen, DeVante Adams and Antonio Brown when playing. Diggs will now be Josh Allen’s No. 1 receiver in Buffalo after partly forcing himself out of Minnesota. Allen’s accuracy is not his strong suit, which could spell problems for Diggs and his fluid route-running and awareness. Still, it’s impossible not to improve with the addition of Diggs to a pass-catching core. Diggs ranked 4th last year in yards per reception (17.9) and remains one of the better intermediate and deep threats in the league.

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

Kelce remains the best center in football for a team that prides themselves in steady offensive line play. The soon-to-be 33-year-old has been named a First-team All-Pro in each of the last three seasons, while also being PFF’s top-graded center in all three years.

64. Danielle Hunter  Danielle Hunter – EDGE, Minnesota Vikings (Last year: NR)

Hunter notched 14.5 sacks for the second year in a row last season working as a terrorizing EDGE defender along the Vikings defense line. He was also one of the top pass rushers in terms of overall pressures. Now that his production has skyrocketed, his praise should soon catch up. He’s underrated.

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

His play dipped last year, but so did Khalil Mack’s and the majority of the Bears defense’s. Don’t let last year fool you, he’s one of the best safeties in football. He’ll pick it back up this season.

62. Joe MixonJoe Mixon – RB, Cincinnati Bengals (Last year: NR)

It’s hard to produce or stand out league-wide on a team such as last year’s Bengals squad, but Joe Mixon did just that. At 6-foot-1, 220 pounds, he’s one of the bigger feature backs in football. A nice blend of old-school, hard running and new-age athleticism, Mixon should help take some pressure of Bengals rookie quarterback Joe Burrow in 2020.

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

After a booming 2018 season, he wasn’t quite the same in 2019. Injuries certainly played a part. Still, he remains one of the most dynamic players in football, and best pass-catching running backs after Christian McCaffrey. Kamara has notched exactly 81 catches in each of the last three seasons, and averages an insane 5.0 yards per carry on the ground. He has 37 total touchdowns in just three seasons, but his number of scores dropped from 18 to six in 2019. He’s set to bounce back this season.

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

An ankle injury derailed his 2019 season. He’ll be 30 by the end of August, but is set up for a monster season as the Vikings’ No. 1 receiver once more. With Diggs gone, expect a boatload of targets to come his way. He can play on the perimeter and as a “Big” slot receiver.

59.Za'Darius Smith Za’Darius Smith – EDGE, Green Bay Packers (Last year: NR)

Smith was a monstrous offseason addition for the Packers last season. With the exception of maybe Nick Bosa in San Francisco, no other defensive newcomer transformed a defense like Smith did in 2019. He notched 13.5 sacks, led the league in total pressures (93) and notched one of the highest-graded seasons in terms of pass rushing and coverage as an EDGE defender, according to PFF.

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

Last year’s list showcased a trend in the rising importance of players who work out of the slot, on both offense and defense. As a safety/nickel back hybrid, Tyrann Mathieu showed his worth by picking up the slack in a lackluster secondary, making things difficult for quarterbacks over the middle. The Chiefs likely wouldn’t have had enough talent on defense to win the Super Bowl without him.

57. Lane Johnson Lane Johnson – OT, Philadelphia Eagles (Last year: NR)

Johnson has been consistently great as the Eagles right tackle over the past few seasons. In 2019, he allowed just one sack and posted the highest run-blocking grade for a tackle, according to PFF.

56. Josh Jacobs Josh Jacobs – RB, Las Vegas Raiders (Last year: NR)

In just 13 games last season, Jacobs posted 4.8 yards per carry while averaging 88.5 yards rushing per game, which was good for third in the league. The Raiders relied heavily on the rookie to produce on offense. That’ll be the case again in 2020, as the franchise opens up their new stadium in Las Vegas. At least they have one of the game’s best young running backs.

55.Eric Kendricks  Eric Kendricks – LB, Minnesota Vikings (Last year: NR)

He was PFF‘s second-highest graded off-ball linebacker last year. Kendricks excels in pass coverage in an era in which teams rightly covet linebackers of that variety. He’s no slouch in run coverage, either.

54. Nick Chubb Nick Chubb – RB, Cleveland Browns (Last year: NR)

Chubb ran for 1,494 rushing yards last season while averaging 5.1 yards per carry, a ridiculous feet. New Browns head coach Kevin Stefanski (former Vikings OC) should be able to use multiple tight ends and an outside zone rushing scheme to further Chubb’s excellence in 2020. Chubb excels in fighting through contact and breaking tackles to gain extra yardage. He’s a workhorse back. He was also PFF‘s top-rated running back (88.7) last season.

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

James missed all but five games last season due to a stress fracture in his right foot. The Chargers’ defense suffered without him. James is one of the most versatile players in the NFL, capable of playing as a deep safety, box safety, linebacker or cornerback. He can play both man or zone coverage in any scheme. Let’s hope NFL fans don’t have to suffer, too, and we get a healthy Derwin on the field in 2020.

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

It’ll be interesting to see how Evans, a 6-foot-5, giant X-receiver meshes with a 43-year-old Tom Brady. Brady excelled in his prime with Randy Moss as a deep threat, and later turned back the clock at age 40 with Brandin Cooks as a speedy downfield option. Evans is more of a jump ball machine with excellent hands and underrated route-running and awareness. Considering Brady’s work with Gronk over the years, Evans’ top-notch catch radius should help Brady adjust to Bruce Arians’ offense. Regardless, Evans is one of the best perimeter receivers in the game.

51. Ronnie Stanley Ronnie Stanley – OT, Baltimore Ravens (Last year: NR)

Stanley, the No. 6 overall pick in 2016, came into his own in Year 4 as the left tackle for one of the best rushing offenses of all time. He was rightly named First-team All-Pro last year, but ironically, it was mostly his pass blocking that earned him the honor. Stanley notched one of PFF‘s highest-graded pass-blocking seasons (93.7) by a tackle ever, and was the second-best graded tackle overall in 2019.

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

Leonard is a do-it-all force, and perhaps the best off-ball linebacker in football after Bobby Wagner. His light frame and quickness make him perfect for today’s game. He excels in sideline-to-sideline play and zone coverage.

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

Byard has 17 interceptions in the last three seasons, one of the top numbers for a safety. His five-year deal last offseason was the richest contract in NFL history for his position. Byard has proven to be a tough player to play against for all types of quarterbacks, stemming from Tom Brady to Lamar Jackson. He picked off Jackson early in last year’s shocking AFC Divisional Playoff where the Titans upended the Ravens, setting the tone for Baltimore’s night of misery. He’s an enforcer who helps lead the way for Mike Vrabel’s tough Tennessee squad with attitude.

48. Aaron JonesAaron Jones – RB, Green Bay Packers (Last year: NR)

Jones’ 19 total touchdowns tied Christian McCaffrey for the highest mark last season. He’s dual-threat running back who not only excels in the passing game, but can line up on the line as a receiver in shotgun spread formations. But under head coach Matt LaFluer, the Packers now use more 12 personnel (1 RB, 2 TE, 2 WR) and zone-rushing schemes from the Shanahan tree. Jones has proven the ability to flourish in multiple offenses over the past two years, and remains an valuable offensive asset for Green Bay.

47. Minkah FitzpatrickMinkah Fitzpatrick – S, Pittsburgh Steelers (Last year: NR) 

Pittsburgh traded their first-round pick to Miami for the versatile Minkah Fitzpatrick last year, and the decision ultimately was a sound one. The Steelers pick (No. 18 overall) was essentially used to select the 23-year-old defensive back Swiss army knife who changed the landscape of the Steelers defense. He can play free safety (where he played the majority of snaps in 2019, according to PFF), as a box safety, in the slot, or even out wide in man coverage. It’s that kind of versatility that’s sorely needed in any NFL defense because of the style of today’s game.

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

Adams notched 83 catches on 127 targets in 12 games last season as the Packers’ No. 1 receiver. Considering the lack of talent across the rest of their pass-catching arsenal, what Adams has done recently in Green Bay has been extra impressive. He remains one of the best route-runners in football. Everything he does is fluid.

45.Jamal Adams Jamal Adams – S, Seattle Seahawks (Last year: 47)

Seattle traded a massive haul — including two first-round picks and a third-round pick — to the New York Jets in exchange for perhaps the best safety in the NFL. At face value, the trade suggests the Seahawks will look to partly recreate their Legion-of-Boom defensive glory days by using Adams in the Earl Thomas role as a rangy, Cover 3, deep safety. However, Adams actually played more snaps in the box (401) than he did as a free safety (297) last season. As great as he is in deep coverage, he is also a capable man coverage defender versus athletic tight ends, and is also one of the best pass rushing safeties in football. He’s an all-around playmaker. Look for the Seahawks to move him all around the board, especially since Quandre Diggs capable of handling free safety duties.

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

He doesn’t get enough credit as one of the best interior defenders in the NFL. He’s been of the better pass rushers at defensive tackle for quite some time, but it’s his improvement in run coverage that has made him a complete player. He was just one of four interior defenders to grade above an 80 in both pass-rushing and run defense last season for PFF. The Falcons are in need of help around him (and Deion Jones) on defense, but having Jarrett is a good start.

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

The Falcons were riddled with injuries in 2019. They began the season 3-9 before winning their last four games. According to PFF, Matt Ryan had his worst season since 2009. The year was a mess overall, but by the end of the season, there were reasons for optimism. The consistency of Ryan, who has been one of the better quarterbacks or the last decade-plus, is one thing Atlanta should be thankful for. The 35-year-old is in position to bounce back in 2019, as he enters perhaps the tail end of his career. With Julio Jones, Calvin Ridley and newcomers Hayden Hurst (TE) and Todd Gurley, expect there is a capable arsenal for Ryan to thrive with his passing prowess. I sense a good season coming from him. He’ll need it in a tough AFC South that now features Drew Brees and Tom Brady.

42. Richard ShermanRichard Sherman – CB, San Francisco 49ers (Last year: NR) 

In a bounce-back effort for the ages, Sherman adjusted to life as a veteran by regaining his position as an outspoken team leader for an NFC champion team, a familiar role for him. Sherman finished the season as the top-ranked cornerback in the NFL, according to Pro Football Focus (90.3 grade). He’s lost a bit of speed and quickness, but he’s still a technician as a press-coverage boundary cornerback in San Francisco’s Cover 3 scheme.

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

Since coming over to Arizona from New England in 2016, no one has had more sacks (60) than Chandler Jones. The two-time All-Pro can thrive as a stand-up EDGE in a 3-4 or as a 4-3-style defensive end on the line. Only Tampa Bay’s Shaquil Barrett (19.5) notched more sacks than Jones’ 19 last season. There are EDGE defenders that are perhaps more complete players, but you could make the case that Jones has been the best pure pass rusher at that spot over the last three or four years.

40. Dalvin Cook  Dalvin Cook – RB, Minnesota Vikings (Last year: NR)

The thing with a Shanahan-style offense (in which Minnesota runs under OC Gary Kubiak) is that the outside-zone rushing scheme treats running backs well. Heck, Rueben Droughns, a fullback, ran for 1,240 yards in 2004 under Mike Shanahan’s Denver Broncos. So, there’s room for skepticism when gauging running back’s production in a Shanahan scheme.

That being said, we can throw that notion out the window here.

Dalvin Cook is one of the best running backs in football, utilizing his talents as a superb cutback runner who dazzles with quickness and tackle-breaking efficiency. On top of Cook’s 1,135 rushing yards and 13 rushing scores in 2019, he also caught 53 passes. He’s the perfect do-it-all player for Minnesota’s scheme.

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

Kudos to Odell for tweeting out that there’s “unfinished business” in Cleveland. That’s certainly true. Last season was a mess for the hyped-up Browns. But when you can call a 74-catch, 1,035-yard season a disappointment as a wide receiver, we know we’re talking about a special player.

With a new head coach and scheme coming to Cleveland, expect a bounce-back season for Beckham, Baker Mayfield, and the Cleveland offense.

38. DeForest BucknerDeForest Buckner – DT, Indianapolis Colts (Last year: 91)

One of the more under-appreciated players in pro football, Buckner is a force along the interior. The Colts traded their No. 13 pick from this past draft — an extremely valuable piece — to the 49ers n order to obtain the 26-year-old. Last season, Buckner’s presence in the interior allowed the likes of Nick Bosa, Arik Armstead and Dee Ford to feast in one-on-one matchups along the edge. With Buckner, Darius Leonard and linebacker Bobby Okereke now in the front seven, Indianapolis GM Chris Ballard has done a great job of building up his defensive unit.

37. Ryan Ramczyk  Ryan Ramczyk  – OT, New Orleans Saints (Last year: NR)

Ramczyk is the highest-ranked tackle and third-highest ranked offensive lineman on my list. The two-time All-Pro has been a beast at right tackle since joining the Saints as a first-round pick (No. 32) in 2017.

He was PFF‘s highest-graded tackle (90.9) in 2019, and his 91.8 run-blocking grade was the best among lineman who played most or all of the season. He also didn’t allow a single sack.

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

In last year’s list, I detailed Heyward’s game as sort of a 2010’s version of Richard Seymour. Heyward can act as a 3-4-style defensive end or 4-3-style defensive tackle. He mostly plays as an interior defender in Pittsburgh’s Nickel 2-4-5 scheme with 3-4 principles — sort of like New England’s base defense last season. I also noted that Heyward’s best years may be behind him.

I was wrong.

Heyward, 31, had his best season in 2019, tallying nine sacks and the highest grade (91.5) of any interior defender not named Aaron Donald. He was phenomenal both against the run and rushing the passer. With fellow interior defender Stephon Tuitt out of Pittsburgh’s lineup for 10 games, Heyward stepped up to the plate. His inside presence was key in allowing T.J. Watt to have a career year as an EDGE defender.

35. Jalen RamseyJalen Ramsey – CB, Los Angeles Rams (Last year: 24) 

As the Rams attempt to reverse course on their over spending by cutting bait with others, they appear to be content with spending a boatload of money (and two first-round picks in a trade to Jacksonville) on Aaron Donald and Ramsey, figuring they have the NFL’s best non-QB and a top-three cornerback. They’d be right on both fronts, even if their trade for Ramsey was steep. The former Jaguar can play any coverage, but also thrives in Cover 3. The COVID-19 pandemic may hinder his ability to feel comfortable entering his first full season as a Ram, but with half a season already under his belt out in LA, that shouldn’t be a problem for the boisterous cornerback, who happens to be the most talented in the league at his position. Ramsey struggled last year, adjusting to his new team, but I don’t seem him continuing down that path going forward. He’ll return to his old self, or close to it.

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

Martin has played six NFL seasons and has made six All-Pro teams. Quite simply, he’s an animal up front.

Last season he was the third-highest graded guard on PFF. He’s been among the top-five graded guards every year he’s been in the league. His pass-blocking grade (90.8) was the top mark by far for his position. He will continue to be a mauler at guard for years to come. He’s the second-highest ranked offensive lineman on my list.

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

Another defensive tackle who qualifies for the “not-talked-about-enough” list is Fletcher Cox.

He’ll turn 30 in December, but should continue to shine as a do-it-all force that creates a ton of inside pressure on the quarterback, even if his sack numbers don’t show it.

32. Calais CampbellCalais Campbell – EDGE, Baltimore Ravens (Last year: 49)

If Cam Newton to New England is the “How did the NFL let this happen?” storyline on the offensive side of the ball, Calias Campbell being traded from the Jaguars to the Ravens for a measly fifth-round pick wins defensive honors.

Sure, he’ll be 34 years old by the time the season starts, but his versatility and run coverage will make a huge difference along a Ravens’ defensive line that was gashed by Derrick Henry and the Titans in their playoff loss last January.

Campbell does work as both an interior presence and EDGE rusher, and fits base defenses with both 3-4 and 4-3 principles (most teams now use Nickel personnel with five defensive backs as a base, but still employ principles of the 4-3 and 3-4).

His PFF run blocking grade (90.6) in 2019 was best among all EDGE defenders and second for interior defensive lineman. His overall PFF grade was third-best among interior lineman. Furthermore, Campbell’s veteran presence should elevate him to a team-captain-ish role on the team if he isn’t literally elected as a captain. The addition of both Campbell and Derek Wolfe will work wonders for the Ravens both on and off the field. It’s Super Bowl or bust for Baltimore.

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

After earning his mega-extension before last season, Elliott became the fifth running back in NFL history to rush for over 5,000 yards before the age of 25. The two-time All-Pro finally turned 25 last week, and should continue his ascension up the all-time rushing list. He ran for 1,387 yards and 12 scores last season with a 4.5 average per rush. That was somehow overlooked, as he stills chasing the magic that came with his rookie year in 2016. The Cowboys offensive line remains one of the league’s best  units, but is not quite as good as it was in 2016. Great offensive line or not, Elliott is one of the best downhill runners in football with excellent vision and stamina.

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

Watt again missed valuable time with an injury after tearing his pectoral halfway through last season. But in eight games, he notched an 88.9 PFF pass-rushing grade, good for sixth-best among EDGE defenders.

Watt’s last full season (2018) was a First-team All-Pro sensation, hence his high rank on my list last season, but the problem is his three seasons surrounding that campaign (2016, 2017, 2019) have added up to just 16 games total, meaning he’s missed 32 regular season games to injury since 2016. That’s two full seasons in four years. He’s 31 years old now, but can still be a force up front.

29. Derrick Henry Derrick Henry – RB, Tennessee Titans (Last year: NR)

Simply put, Henry is a dominant force at the running back position. With size (6-foot-3, 247 pounds), strength and power, the 26-year-old bell cow back is the perfect antidote for smaller and quicker defenses often employed in today’s game.

Despite his downhill running ability, Henry has enough speed to get to the edge, putting fear in opposing defensive backs. If he reaches the second level behind the front seven, he’s likely to break past safeties for a big gain. He ran for a season-high 1,540 yards on 303 carries last season, good for a whopping 5.1 average, while also adding 18 touchdowns (16 rush, two receiving). He was the only player in the NFL to rush for over 100 yards per game (102.7) and also gained a whopping 1,268 yards after contact in 2019.

Things quickly improved for the Titans when they replaced quarterback Marcus Mariota with Ryan Tannehill, but it was mostly Henry’s running down the cold weather stretch that led to Tennessee to an unlikely AFC Championship Game appearance. Henry ran for 446 yards on 83 carries (5.4 average) in the Titans’ three playing games.

In an age where teams are passing on paying their star running backs to long-term deals  — and rightfully so, for the most part — you have to feel good for Henry, who signed a four-year, $50 contract with $25.5 million guaranteed, a few weeks ago.

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

After finishing among PFF‘s top-four graded EDGE defenders in each of his first eight seasons, Miller slipped to 22nd in 2019. Could his best years as a pass rusher be behind him? Possibly. But I’d be willing to bet we see a bounce-back season from the 31-year-old with a healthy Bradley Chubb rushing from the other side.

With Drew Lock and an offense with a lot of potential, and a defense fielding Miller, Chubb and newcomers Jurrell Casey (DT) and A.J. Bouye (CB), the Broncos have sort of a pre-season 2019 49ers feel to them. If Denver is to meet expectations, they’ll need a big year from Miller, and he’s certainly still capable.

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

Watson is one of the more promising young quarterbacks in football, and is one of a few talented young field generals (Patrick Mahomes, Lamar Jackson, Kyler Murray, etc.) that has helped usher in a new era of football featuring forward-thinking coaches and front offices building around dual-threat quarterbacks.

Unfortunately, Bill O’Brien the GM has had issues surrounding Watson with a talented squad that can consistently stand up to the likes of Kansas City, Baltimore and perhaps, New England, in the AFC.

Even with left tackle Laramey Tunsil, the Texans’ offensive line is a mess, often sending Watson into a frenzy that includes making plays on the move while running for his safety, away from a pass rush.

Houston’s 16-point comeback win over the Bills in their AFC Wild Card matchup was a good illustration of Watson’s capabilities as a franchise quarterback. Despite DeAndre Hopkins’ departure, a trio of Will Fuller IV, Brandin Cooks and Randall Cobb, along with running back David Johnson, is a sneaky-good lineup. Watson and O’Brien the coach (not to be confused with O’Brien, the GM) should be able to parlay this into another AFC South title, but will that alone be enough to comfort Watson into taking a long-term, big-money deal to stay in Houston? Certainly, money talks, but Watson’s future in Houston may be something to monitor in the next year or two.

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

Kelce topped 1,200 yards receiving for the second consecutive season last year, with his 97 catches garnering a total of 200 in his last two seasons.

He’s improved some as a blocker, but his strength is ability as a “jumbo” wide receiver with ridiculous shake-and-bake agility and route-running smoothness for someone of his size — 6-foot-5, 260 pounds. Considering the way he moves, there hasn’t quite been a ‘Y’ playmaker like Kelce. He’s a special pass catcher. Kelce turns 31 in October, but should continue to produce big numbers for the next season or two.

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

The Chiefs were wise to lock up Jones this offseason as a cornerstone piece (along with Patrick Mahomes and Tyreek Hill) for years to come. He’s the best interior pass rusher in the NFL after Aaron Donald, and has improved some as a run defender. His knockdowns on some of Jimmy Garoppolo’s passes late in Super Bowl 54 were a major part of the Chiefs’ comeback victory. He’ll only get better. The Chiefs can build around him up front.

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

Jordan, 31, is another overlooked EDGE defender in the mold of Fletcher Cox and Grady Jarrett in the interior. In his nine seasons, he has yet to miss a game, while garnering five double-digit sack efforts in the last nine years, which includes a career-high 15.5 takedowns in 2019.

He is just about equally effective both against the run and rushing the passer, and has remained consistent enough to be named to the NFL’s 2010s All-Decade Team, opposite Calias Campbell on the EDGE.

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

After missing time with a foot injury in 2018, Joey Bosa quietly returned to forming 2019, notching 11.5 sacks en route to being PFF‘s fifth-graded EDGE defenders. His brother stole most of his thunder last season, but only T.J. Watt and Myles Garrett notched a better PFF pass rush grade (90.3) at his position. Joey is just turned 25 years old, and has room for improvement. That’s a scary thought.

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

With a never-before-seen blend of speed, agility, burst and tough-it-out, hold-on-to-the-ball catch ability, Hill is the definition of a mighty mouse playmaker with peak explosiveness.

Hill, 26, already owns the most 60-yard-plus touchdowns (16) in NFL History, and averages a whopping 40.8 yards per touchdown. He’s on a short list with the likes of Randy Moss and prime DeSean Jackson as one of the greatest deep threats of all time. Additionally, he has otherworldly after-the-catch ability. He’s the most unique wide receiver in the NFL, and when paired with perhaps the best pass-catching tight end and the most talented quarterback of all-time, the Chiefs are virtually unstoppable on offense when everyone is clicking.

21. DeAndre HopkinsDeAndre Hopkins – WR, Arizona Cardinals (Last year: 13)

Hopkins was my highest-ranked receiver last season, and remains in my top three heading into 2020 with his new club. He doesn’t have the explosiveness or speed of a Tyreek Hill, or ridiculous size of a Mike Evans or Julio Jones, but he makes it work with some of the best hands this game has ever seen.

Having just turned 28 this summer, he has ample time to continue climbing up the receiving record books as a reliable No. 1 target for young phenom Kyler Murray in Arizona.

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

He had a subpar year by his standards in 2019, but was still one of the best off-ball linebackers in the game. He just turned 30, but remains in the back-end of his prime as the NFL’s premier linebacker and field general. Seattle hasn’t quite hit on their draft picks over the last few years, but they were still wise to build their team around both Russell Wilson and Wagner in the post-Legion-of-Boom era.

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

Entering his age-31 season, there is still a viable case for Jones being the best receiver in football. In a rough year for the Falcons, Jones quietly posted a 99-catch, 1,394-yard season that somehow is his worst campaign since 2013, in terms of statistical production. That’s absolutely insane.

Over the past six seasons, Jones has averaged 103 catches and 1,565 receiving yards per year. Expect him to continue that pace in 2020.

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

It’s hard to dock Barkley because of his subpar offensive line and lack of an overall offense. All eyes are on him. Yet, he produced almost 1,500 total yards and eight scores in 13 games last season.

At 6-foot, 233 pounds with size, speed and power, the 23-year-old has yet to scratch the surface of what he can accomplish. He’s the most talented running back in football, and one of the most physically-gifted athletic freaks in all of sports.

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

In hopes of putting last year’s debacle with Steelers quarterback Mason Rudolph behind him, Garrett enters 2020 with a massive new contract and a renewed sense of purpose.

Garrett somehow notched 10 sacks in 10 games played last year, and was the No. 1 pass rusher in terms of PFF‘s grading system before being suspended for the rest of the year after the incident. Like the 2019 Cleveland Browns in general, Garrett and the reset of the talented players on that squad are ready to leave the past where it belongs in hopes of reaching the postseason in 2020 with new head coach Kevin Stefanski.

16. T.J. Watt  T.J. Watt – EDGE, Pittsburgh Steelers (Last year: NR)

Watt, 25, finished second in DPOY voting last year for good reason. He increased his sack total (14.5) for the third year in a row, giving him 34.5 in his first three seasons. He was also graded as PFF‘s top EDGE defender both overall (91.3) and rushing the passer (91.7).

He’s a monster in all facets as a Nickel 2-4-5 stand-up EDGE in Pittsburgh’s base defense, which uses 3-4 principles from their 2000s days. He is in line for a massive contract extension, perhaps next offseason.

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

Khalil Mack’s “off” year was a season in which he notched 8.5 sacks, but still ranked among the top EDGE defenders in both run coverage and pass rushing, according to PFF.

Entering his age-29 season, Mack is well positioned to return to his monstrous ways as a stand-up rusher opposite newcomer Robert Quinn. Expect him to notch double digit sacks in 2020 as he feasts off the edge.

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

It’s ironic that the Bills parted ways with man coverage extraordinaire Stephon Gilmore, only to draft Tre’Davious White in the first round of that same offseason.

Bills GM Brandon Beane has done an excellent job in building Buffalo’s roster into one of the better teams heading into 2020, and no player represents that more than the 25-year-old White. The 2017 first-round pick has become the second-best cornerback in football with the inclination that he may be become the premier player at his position in due time.

White primarily plays a lot of zone coverage in the Bills’ scheme, but also excels when asked to play man coverage. He also plays the majority of his snaps out wide on the perimeter. But in 2017 and 2018, White often shadowed Rob Gronkowski, and gave him fits.

Basically, he can do it all.

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

The Panthers ponied up to hand McCaffrey a four-year deal upwards of $16 million per season, with over half of the contract guaranteed. That’s the most lucrative contract for a running back in NFL history. He earned the deal by becoming the first running back in league history to accumulate over 2,500 rushing yards and 2,500 receiving yards in his first three seasons, while also playing the highest rate of snaps for a running back (1,004 snaps, 93.4 percent) in 2019, according to Next Gen Stats. He’s not a running back of the traditional mold. Instead, he’s a phenomenally versatile offensive playmaker who is perfect for today’s game, as evident by his 1,387 rushing yards and 116 catches last season.

“I don’t look at Christian [McCaffrey] as just a running back,” Panthers first-year head coach Matt Rhule told WFNZ in March. “We see him as a weapon. We see him as a person that can be a receiver, a running back, can be a returner. As important as anything else is the true leader [McCaffrey is] on the team and he does everything the right way. I don’t think he’s the type of player you can pigeonhole into one position.”

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

The 24-year-old, two-time First-team All-Pro has already became the best guard, and offensive lineman, in all of pro football.

He was the second-highest graded offensive lineman by PFF (91.2) last season (behind Eagles guard Brandon Brooks), and allowed just three sacks on 1,042 offensive snaps. He’s equally dominant in both pass blocking and run blocking. He will only get better. He’s already on track to become a Hall-of-Famer, and one of the best guards this game has ever seen.

 

11. Nick BosaNick Bosa – EDGE, San Francisco 49ers (Last year: NR)

Nick Bosa, the second overall pick in 2019, was an absolute madman along the edge as a rookie. He entered the league with a lot of hype, and somehow exceed it by a hefty margin.

It’s true that the 49ers were absolutely stacked up front, fielding four other first-rounders along the defensive line, which included DeForest Buckner and Dee Ford, but the 22-year-old Bosa stood out among the group.

He’s a better pass rusher than run stuffer, but he also sets the edge exceptionally well in run coverage. On passing downs, Bosa utilizes a nice blend of power and finesse moves to get to the quarterback. Nick virtually overpowers tackles as one of the most athletic EDGE defenders in the game.

He ranked second among EDGE players in PFF grade (89.8) last season, and generated an absurd 80 pressures, which is the more telling stat than his nine sacks.

In all, he had one of the most impressive rookie seasons of any defensive player ever last year, and will only get better.

 

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

In sports, when everyone knows something is going to happen and it still can’t be stopped, that speaks to the dominance of the player involved.

Michael Thomas on intermediate passing targets has become one of the surest bets in the NFL.

Playing both on the perimeter and as a “big” slot option, Thomas uses his fantastic hands, body control, and elite awareness to come down with all different kinds of catches. At 6-foot-3, 212 pounds, he boxes defenders out, high points balls, and destroys both man and zone coverage.

He broke the single-season catch record with 149 grabs last season to go a long with a league-leading 1,725 receiving yards on 185 targets. He has 470 catches in just four seasons in the league, and should continue to dominate in 2020 with Drew Brees still at the helm.

He’s the top receiver on my list this year, and he’s earned it.

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

There’s no question that last season was an acclimation season for Aaron Rodgers under new head coach Matt LaFluer’s system. LaFluer loves running ’12’ personnel (1 RB, 2 TE, 2 WR) with the quarterback under center in a Shanahan-type system that favors the outside-zone running game.

Add in the lack of secondary weapons outside of DeVante Adams and Aaron Jones — who are both supreme players who made my list, however — and you have a subpar season, by Rodgers’ standards.

Still, in his Age-35 season, Rodgers threw for over 4,000 yards with a 26-to-four touchdown-to-interception ratio, which eases the appearance of his 50.4 Total QBR mark. Plus, Rodgers helped lead the Packers to the NFC Championship Game for the third time in the last six seasons.

Now, he entered 2020 with something to prove after Green Bay drafted what could be his eventual replacement in the first round in quarterback Jordan Love. I expect Rodgers to respond by having a bounce-back campaign. This will only drive him.

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

Like Tom Brady — before last season, at least — Drew Brees has enjoyed a fruitful twilight that perhaps includes his best play in his late 30’s and early 40’s.

Last year, at 40, he nearly broke is completion percentage record from the year before (74.4 percent in 2018) with a 74.3 percent mark, while also boasting a career-high 116.3 rating and nearly 3,000 passing yards in 11 games. Statistically, he is the most accurate passer of all time.

He enters 2020 with yet another prime chance to win a coveted second Super Bowl ring in what looks to be his final season. New Orleans has perhaps the best roster in football. They have a solid defense, the most productive wide receiver in football, and a dynamic playmaker at running back. They also added Emmanuel Sanders at wide receiver and still have the versatile Taysom Hill as a Swiss Army knife.

Then there’s Sean Payton. Brees and Payton have been together since their dual arrival in New Orleans in 2006, and they know how much a second Super Bowl ring would mean to their run.

Last year, Brees took the lead as the all-time leader in touchdown passes, which is now a race that sees him leading Tom Brady by six. He also graded out as the second best passer (89.2) and overall quarterback (90.6) in PFF’s grading system.

For the Saints, anything less than a Super Bowl win is a disappointment. Luckily, they still have one of the best quarterbacks of all time, who is ready to write his final chapter.

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

Not only was George Kittle the top tight end in football last year, PFF ranked him as their top player overall in the NFL.

Kittle graded as a 94.4 overall, which is by far their top mark for a tight end last season, and the highest mark for a tight end ever, in their grading system.

As a prototypical ‘Y’ with devastating yards-after-catch ability, Kittle is simply too big for defensive backs, and perhaps too fast and too big for linebackers, as well. At 6-foot-4, 250 pounds, Kittle broke 20 tackles (most for a tight end or wide receiver in 2019) and produced 622 yards after catch last season. The latter mark was more than any non-running back pass catcher, and good for third overall behind just Christian McCaffrey and Austin Ekeler.

Furthermore, the 26-year-old is as good a blocker as he is a pass catcher. He’s filled the whole left by the departure of prime Rob Gronkowski as the man among boys at the position.

6. Tom Brady Tom Brady – QB, Tampa Bay Buccaneers (Last year: 1)

I suspect this will be one of the more scrutinized slots on my list.

No, Tom Brady was not great last season. At times, he was as inaccurate and frustrated as he’s ever been. As he enters unknown territory at age 43, there’s no doubt his physical skills have already begun to decline.

But in today’s game, where quarterbacks are protected, Brady at 70 percent, physically, and at his best-of-all-time peak, mentally, is still a dangerous combo. Add in the fact that he is as driven as ever to prove everyone wrong (again) and will be throwing to an absurdly-talented tight end trio and wide receiver duo, and you can bet there’s a better chance that we’ll see GOAT-level Brady for stretches in 2020.

Last year, he dealt with a receiving core that was last in the league by a mile in average separation. After a fun start, Josh Gordon was jettisoned, the Antonio Brown experiment imploded, Gronkowski, James Develin, Trent Brown and David Andrews were not there to block and Brady was left with 33-year-old Julian Edelman and not much else.

So with Brady, there’s a chicken and egg-type situation — Was New England’s offense subpar because of Brady’s decline? Or was it mostly his surrounding core? I think there’s a little bit of the former at play, but I would attribute most of last year to the latter.

Plus, are you willing to doubt the man this Fall?

5. Lamar JacksonLamar Jackson – QB, Baltimore Ravens (Last year: NR)

Lamar Jackson took the league by storm in 2019, rightfully becoming the second unanimous NFL MVP in league history (Tom Brady was the first in 2010).

He obliterated the single-season rushing yards record for a quarterback with 1,206 yards on the ground, good for sixth in the league overall. He did so with a 6.9-yard rushing average mostly on designed runs that defenses were anticipating, but could not stop.

Not only is Jackson the best quarterback at designed runs the game has ever seen, he’s also a competent passer who will vastly improve as he becomes more polished. In 2019, he threw for a league-high 36 touchdown passes with just six interceptions and and posted a league-best 81.8 Total QBR.

At times, he was simply unstoppable. I don’t see his game being “figured out” anytime soon. Sure, defenses will adjust, but you can’t mimic Jackson’s athleticism, and he’ll only get better as a field general. He may not post absurd, unanimous MVP-type numbers for many more seasons, but he’ll continue to be a star for years to come.

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

In Gilmore, the Patriots have the best shutdown, man coverage cornerback since Darrelle Revis from his early-career days as a New York Jet. Gilmore became the first defensive back in roughly a decade to win the league’s Defensive Player of the Year award by stymieing opposing No. 1 receivers on a weekly basis. His incredible play was at its peak during the middle of last season, when he held Cowboys No. 1 receiver Amari Cooper to zero catches on two targets, while also grabbing an interception. Bill Belichick is able to scheme up a pass rush in New England’s 3-4-type, Nickel 2-4-5 defensive scheme by sending blitzing linebackers while knowing Gilmore will blanket the opposing team’s top pass-catching option. He’s the best man coverage cornerback since peak Darrelle Revis, and the second-best defensive player in the league, and perhaps the most valuable in today’s game.

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

Perhaps the most underrated player in today’s game, Russell Wilson’s value to Seattle rivals that of any other player’s value to their respective team as we begin the new decade.

Last season, he was the top-graded quarterback (91.9) by PFF, all while posting a 31-to-5 touchdown-to-interception ratio. And although the drafting of D.K. Metcalf is a nice compliment to Tyler Lockett, the quarterback’s supporting cast is still a so-so affair compared to that of some of his fellow elite field generals.

His offensive line is shaky, and although Seattle has a decent running game, the team relies too much on it, often taking the ball out of Wilson’s hands. He’s one of the best clutch quarterbacks this game has ever seen, often using his ability to improvise or use his league-best passing touch to fit in downfield passes when the team needs him most.

After solids drafts that netted the Legion of Boom era, GM Jon Schneider has been just OK in recent seasons, appearing to whiff on the team’s last four first-round picks, and gambling by trading their next two to the Jets for safety Jamal Adams.

Wilson will continue to lead Seattle to seasons of 10-plus wins, but for the Seahawks to return to the big game, they’ll need to improve their defense and offensive line. Still, he’s a treat to watch, especially when he elevates this Seattle team.

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

It’s a shame Donald hasn’t reached the top spot on my list for the past three years, but as the league’s best non-QB over that span, he’s been in my top three on all three of my lists since I began this exercise in the Summer of 2018.

His PFF grades are the most impressive marks found on the website. He has been graded the top interior defender for the past five years, and was the second-best graded in 2014, his rookie season. He’s missed just two games in his career, and has averaged 16.5 sacks over the last two seasons as a defensive tackle, which is silly.

He’s a future first-ballot Hall-of-Famer, and one of the most dominant football players of all time.

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

With less than two full seasons as a starter under his belt, 24-year-old Patrick Mahomes has twice reached the AFC Championship Game and has earned an NFL MVP award and Super Bowl 54 MVP honors. His ascension to this spot could come with a decade-long warranty. He has more to prove, but it’s clear he’s a legendary player who could be on path to challenge Brady as the GOAT, years from now.

A pass-catching offense featuring the likes of Tyreek Hill, Travis Kelce, Sammy Watkins, a sturdy offensive line and mastermind Andy Reid is an excellent surrounding cast, but we saw the difference between Alex Smith and Mahomes leading this offense. Yes, even though he has tons of help, Mahomes is simply the most talented quarterback to ever play the game.

Derrick Henry stiff arms Earl Thomas

NFL Monday Morning Madness: Titans, Chiefs to meet in AFC tilt of opposites + a NFC rivalry renewed

Many have said the NFL’s Divisional Playoff round is the best weekend in sports. I’m sure those people are not disappointed after this past weekend’s slate of games.

One major upset, one major comeback, and a close contest between two of the league’s top quarterbacks in legendary Lambeau Field.

But we begin with a side-by-side look at the AFC title game participants, and a barometer check of the conference as a whole.

*******

It almost happened. After an unfortunate turn of events, the Chiefs trailed the Texans 24-0 in the second quarter, with most believing that we were headed toward an unthinkable AFC “South” Championship Game — Tennessee at Houston.

Although intriguing and unexpected, it’s certainly not the game the NFL envisioned as a ratings bonanza for their second-most (tied) important game of their 100th season.

Luckily for those who may think that, Kansas City recovered. Patrick Mahomes reminded many of his brilliance in throwing for four second quarter touchdown passes, three to Travis Kelce, and Kansas City outscored Houston 51-7 the rest of the way, for a 51-31 victory.

“I don’t know who pissed him off, I don’t know who made him mad,” safety Tyrann Mathieu told Yahoo Sports of Mahomes, after the game. “I told him in the training room [afterwards], man — I said man, I don’t know who made you mad but I don’t have anything to do with it. Because when he comes out and [plays] like that, he’s clearly the best player in the National Football League by far, and everybody knows that.”

Mahomes vs Texans
Patrick Mahomes’ fiery attitude kept Kansas City’s playoff hopes alive, and broke Houston’s will and spirit. (Screenshot: NFL on CBS)

Make no mistake, this was Mahomes’s finest performance  — 23 for 35, 321 yards, five touchdowns  — which comes in the form of a 24-point comeback that is tied for fourth-best in NFL postseason history. After being down big, the phenom quarterback led seven straight touchdown-scoring drives, for 41 unanswered points.

Kelce played his role of Robin, or maybe a second Batman, in hauling in 10 catches for 134 yards and three scores.

“Coach Reid is dialing them up for me and Pat is putting the ball on the money every single time,” Kelce told CBS’ Tracy Wolfson after the game. It’s definitely a combination of everything coming together,

Reid is one of the best offensive minds in NFL history, but it took some off-script improvising by Mahomes and Kelce to come away with two key red zone scores during the comeback. Both times, Mahomes was flushed to the sideline, only to throw or pitch a touchdown to Kelce, who used spatial awareness to haul in scores around multiple defenders sitting near the end zone.

For fun, the Chiefs mercilessly added 118 yards on the ground and sacked Texans quarterback Deshaun Watson five times — three sacks by offseason acquisition Frank Clark.

It was a fast-paced, track sprint of a victory by Kansas City that showcased their speed and explosiveness on offense, and finished with help from their new-and-improved defense, led by newcomers Clark and Mathieu.

_______________

Less than 20 hours earlier, the Titans had pulled off the unthinkable, a 28-12 smash-mouth beatdown over Lamar Jackson and the Ravens, whom were the league’s biggest regular season story.

Just like their win last week of Tom Brady and the Patriots in New England, postseason hero Derrick Henry was heavily utilized. The gargantuan back carried the ball another 30 times for 195 and a touchdown, and also threw for a goal line score on a jump-pass to Corey Davis. His Tim Tebow-style leap pass was just one of several rushing highlights that included a 66-yard, back-breaking scramble to set up his touchdown throw, and another long run along the sideline earlier in which he stiff-armed Earl Thomas to the point of turning him around, and into a lead-blocking fullback for his amusement. His performance was again, unstoppable.

The offense started after Kevin Byard intercepted a tipped Lamar Jackson ball off Mark Andrews fingertips, and Ryan Tannehill lobbed a long 3rd-and-goal touchdown pass to Jonnu Smith, who did most of the work in an acrobatic touchdown catch that set the tone.

“…Just starting the game out the way we did was a big key for us….It was huge,” Kevin Byard told The Athletic. “They’re probably one of the best first-quarter teams in the league, so the fact we got up on them in the first quarter, it kind of changed the game plan a little bit.”

Additionally, defensive coordinator and wizard Dean Pees stymied yet another former club on his revenge tour, with this being the best defensive performance of any team, all season. Soon-to-be-named MVP Lamar Jackson was elusive and unstoppable all regular season, and he produced 508 total yards of offense on Saturday, but that was mostly a hollow facade that did not tell the story of this game.

Tennessee held Baltimore’s offense to 12 points and forced three Jackson turnovers. The Titans muddled the middle of the field and loaded the box on Baltimore’s rushing attack, bringing up top-tier safety duo of Byard and Kenny Vaccaro near the line of scrimmage for a good portion of the game.

“We wanted to give him loaded boxes all night to get him out of the run game,” Titans cornerback Logan Ryan told Bleacher Report. “We were either playing with a loaded box and man to man and make him beat us throwing the ball outside mano-a-mano or we were going to play a zone defense, a quarters defense similar to what Buffalo did. And Buffalo played them well. Buffalo just didn’t score a lot of points on offense. So we had eight-, nine-man boxes all night. You play Madden and run Engage Eight all day, it’s hard to run the ball.”

Tennessee forced Jackson to throw 59 times, often leaving everything covered but the boundaries. Jackson struggled outside the numbers, showcased by a late interception by Vaccaro when the Ravens quarterback tried to hit Baltimore rookie Myles Boykin on a quick out toward the sideline when Baltimore was in near-desperation mode.

It doesn’t help that Baltimore lacks wide receiver talent outside of Hollywood Brown. Boykin and Willie Snead are not going to cut it. Baltimore had found success throwing to its three tight ends — Mark Andrews, Hayden Hurst, Nick Boyle — all season, but the Titans took them, and the middle of the field away.

As a team that was used to punching teams in the mouth early and often, John Harbaugh looked nervous and frustrated on the sideline, unsure if his style of offense could mount a double-digit postseason comeback. Despite Jackson keeping his cool (at least) attempting to get his team back in the game, Baltimore never recovered. On top of their struggles in the passing game — minus a few nice downfield throws by Jackson to Brown through the rare soft Titans zone coverage — Jackson was stymied on two 4th-and-1 quarterback sneaks after converting all eight such situations during the regular season.

For Baltimore, nothing seemed to work. They were left befuddled and disappointed, unable to capitalize on their best regular season in franchise history.

“Listen, Lamar Jackson’s the MVP,” Byard told The Athletic. “He deservingly is supposed to be the MVP, the will that he plays with, he’s an incredible athlete. He tried to do everything he possibly could to will his team back into it. But it was our day today.”

Tennessee quarterback Ryan Tannehill once again threw under 100 yards — 88 this week — but did throw for two touchdowns. Tennessee became the second team in postseason history to win back-to-back games in such fashion, joining the 1972 and 1973 Dolphins, and 1974 Steelers.

Behind Mike Vrabel’s fearless leadership, Tennessee came away with another old-school win. In a league where dual-threat quarterbacks and fast-break offenses equipped with speed and an NBA-style aggressivesnes are starting to take over, a defense and running game can still get it done. That shouldn’t seem so surprising, but yet, the win surprised many of us.

“If we’re being quite honest, we just shocked the world, and that’s all there is to it,” said Titans left guard Rodger Saffold.

“And the confidence and belief in this team is something I’ve felt before, and you guys already know that. This is a special team. We’re showing it. And you’ve got to love the underdog.”

_______________

This weekend’s events left us with some questions about the changing-of-the-guard AFC that saw it’s dominating — for the past 20 years — team in the Patriots bow out early to a series of offseason questions, and it’s upstart, best-of-this-season team suffer perhaps the most shocking one-and-done loss in NFL playoff history.

What’s next for Baltimore? A soon-to-be optimistic look back on how they revolutionized football in 2019, perhaps. As Sports Illustrated’s Jenny Vrentas pointed out in a great piece, Jackson’s electrifying season did happen.

Baltimore will need to shore up their possibly overrated front seven and add a receiver or two to Jackson’s arsenal. There’s a good chance Lamar makes more strides in the passing game next season, similar to his Year 1-to-Year 2 jump.

Baltimore will likely regress some from their 14-2 mark, and they’ll have to deal with Pittsburgh. The Steelers have an elite defense and should see the return of Ben Roethlisberger next season, to help the offense.

And expect the Patriots to re-sign Tom Brady and supply him with a few offensive weapons for the dynasty’s home stretch. New England is not done yet.

Then there’s the two AFC finalists. After a season of blending in with a hobbled Patrick Mahomes, the Chiefs have won seven straight since beginning the year 6-4, with the defense being the story of their season in the second half. Mahomes and the offense sputtered for a bit, but they put on their best 2018 Chiefs impression in their win on Sunday.

Still, Kansas City must stay strong on defense, doing their best 2006 Colts impression, if they are going to go all the way.

But this season’s Titans have a heavy dose of 2007 and 2011 Giants to them. They are an underdog only to the outside world. After a 2-4 start to the season under Marcus Mariota, Tennessee is 9-3 under Tannehill, and Henry’s late-season run is reminiscent of the NFL’s older days, where superstar running backs could take over in January.

Despite allowing just 9.6 points per game since Week 11 prior to Sunday, the Chiefs have still been gashed for 4.9 yards per rush this season. Kansas City was without defensive tackle Chris Jones on Sunday, and even if Jones is good to go this Sunday, the Chiefs are left extremely vulnerable to another legendary Henry performance.

Dean Pees’ scheming versus Kansas City’s offense will loom large. As Baltimore’s linebackers coach & defensive coordinator from 2010-2017, Pees played his part in sometimes mitigating Rob Gronkowski, and sometimes Gronk and Aaron Hernandez, when limiting Brady and the Patriots.

In Tennessee, Pees has safeties Byard and Vaccaro playing like absolute madmen right now. There’s no way they’ll let Kelce beat them the way the Texans did.

They’ll force Mahomes to throw downfield to Tyreek Hill, Sammy Watkins and Mecole Hardman. And of course, Kansas City can win that way, but things will be tougher at least.

The Titans have tough and competent cornerbacks in Logan Ryan and Adoree Jackson, who can do their part, even against the unbelievable amount of speed that Kansas City possesses. But the Titans will need a steady and consistent pass rush on Mahomes to win. That’s the Titans’ key to the game, where as Kansas City must find some way to limit Henry or they will be in a world of trouble.

In theory, the Titans have all the tools necessary to beat Kansas City. This is a tough matchup for the Chiefs, but Kansas City’s offense is a tough matchup for anyone. Mahomes will score more than Brady and Jackson, and I’m not sure the Titans will be able to keep up if the game is forced into Tannehill’s hands.

My early prognostication is Kansas City winning a semi-close contest.

*******

In Green Bay, it was apparent from the first drive that Aaron Rodgers was going to be on. And Davante Adams — eight catches, 160 yards, two touchdowns —  picked up where Travis Kelce left off in the game before him, baffling both man and zone coverages from the opposing team.

Despite a late Russell Wilson push that stalled on a costly Malik Turner drop, it was apparent from the start that the Seahawks lacked the personnel and health to go on a realistic Super Bowl run.

Wilson did what he could, but this was Rodgers’ time. The Packers legend completed just 16 passes, but threw for 243 yards and two scores with zero turnovers. His beauty of a downfield, first-down pass to Adams on 3rd-and-8 was ice cold in the clutch, and put the Seahawks hopes on ice.

Seattle never got the ball back, Green Bay won 28-23 after getting out to a 28-10 lead. And the defense continued to be rewarded for Green Bay’s rare, high-profile free-agent purchases of Zadarius Smith and Preston Smith on the edge, as each picked up two sacks.

But next, they’ll face a San Francisco 49ers squad that is left as the best and most talented bunch. Heck, they’ve been the best NFC team all year. Their most impressive beatdown of the season came at Green Bay’s expense.

A 37-8 49ers win over the Packers in the Bay area back in November, in which Rodgers was held to a staggering 3.2 yards per pass attempt, and was sacked five times.

After a month or two of so-so defensive play since that day, San Francisco finally has their complete defensive front seven.

Dee Ford is back after missing the past two months, and linebacker Kwon Alexander was activated back off injured reserve after tearing a pectoral muscle a few months back.

Having the unit back together was apparent immediately on Saturday, as the 49ers dominated the Vikings, 27-10, by beating them in just about every facet of the game.

San Francisco held top-five running back Dalvin Cook to just 18 yards on nine carries, sacked Kirk Cousins six times and picked him off once while holding his yards per attempt to just 5.9.

Despite Green Bay fielding one of the best quarterbacks of all-time in Rodgers, it would be surprising to see them come out on top in San Francisco. The 49ers should see a better performance by Jimmy Garoppolo — 11 for 19, 131 yards, 1 TD, 1 INT — after he looked out of place trying to avoid Minnesota’s Eric Kendricks, the league’s top cover linebacker, who could have picked him off three or four times if he had pro pass-catcher’s hands.

San Francisco leaned on it’s running back committee on Saturday, rushing for 186 yards on 47 carries. Tevin Coleman — 22 carries, 105 yards, two touchdowns — was the lead man. He was brought in this offseason from Atlanta after breaking out with the Falcons under Kyle Shanahan’s watch, so Shanahan brought him to San Francisco.

If the 49ers run the ball this well versus Green Bay, the packers have little chance. Jaire Alexander and Kevin King may be able to slow down Emmanuel Sanders and rookie Deebo Samuel in the passing game, but an affective 49ers run game should set up Garoppolo-to-George Kittle after the duo struggled in this past game.

Despite Kelce’s superb performance, Kittle is the NFL’s best tight end. He is at least tied with Kelce as it’s best in pass-catching, and is certainly the best blocking tight end in football. He’s the complete package. He’ll most certainly make some plays next week.

Green Bay will have to have a repeat performance by Rodgers and Adams, while also leaning on running back Aaron Jones to get San Francisco’s best-in-the-league pass rush off Rodgers’ back.

San Francisco cornerback Richard Sherman has had a lot to say recently, but heck, he’s earned it, again. The 31-year-old had a pick on Saturday, and has reinvented himself as an older-but-smarter player with the 49ers.

Sherman covering Davante Adams will be the top player matchup of Conference Championship Sunday. If he can just slow down Adams (not even shut him out), things will be really tough on Green Bay. Jones, the running back, is likely their second-best pass catcher.

“The only place that I’m not the best corner in the game over the last generation is in the haters’ minds,” Sherman told The Athletic after the game. “You look at any stat, anything, and they just try to make it about other players. They never give me credit.”

“For all the people who think I’m in zone, it’s man,” Sherman said, continuing the lecture at his postgame presser. “I get tired of ‘oh man, he’s a zone corner.’ I get tired of hearing the excuses for why I’m great. It was man coverage. I covered the man. I picked the ball off. In the playoffs, in big games, I show up. Year in, year out. Whether it’s 2011, 2012, 2013, 2014 — unless I tear my Achilles, I’m out there doing my job at a high level.”

There’s no doubt that the 49ers and Packers will play a closer game on Sunday than they did around Thanksgiving, but San Francisco is clear out-of-nowhere lead dog (although I’d like to toot my own horn in saying I had them winning the NFC West) that seems to pop up in the NFC almost every year. These uber-talented and fast teams seem to come up every so often.

Sherman was on the best of that category with the Legion-of-Boom era Seahawks. And now, he’s the vocal leader on Seattle’s rival, on the opposite end to the fascinating decade that was the 2010s.

There are plenty of smiles to go around in San Francisco, but they have one more game to win before a surprise trip to Super Bowl LIV. They should win it, in turn proving that a team with this amount of talent making it to the biggest game in their sport shouldn’t be all that surprising.

Lamar Jackson vs Browns

NFL Monday Morning Madness: Jackson permanentely ends MVP race

The Baltimore Ravens’ (13-2) magically dominant season continued on Sunday, as the team clinched home field advantage throughout the AFC with their 11th straight victory — a 31-15 win over the Browns with Cleveland.

And with that, Lamar Jackson clinched this season’s NFL MVP award.

Jackson — 341 total yards, three passing touchdowns — added more highlight-worthy plays through the air and on the ground, extending plays with apparent ease and juking defenders out of their shoes to convert first downs in situations that initially looked impossible.

This has been a weekly thing for Jackson this season. In all, he’s amassed 43 total touchdowns, with a crisp 36-to-six touchdown-to-interception ratio and an NFL-record (for a QB) 1,206 yards rushing and counting.

Jackson’s speed and elusiveness surpass that of Michael Vick, and his improving passing skills have taken his season to statistical heights of that of Tom Brady and Aaron Rodgers’ best years this decade.

Among Baltimore’s 11 straight wins, seven came against teams with winning records, including top-tier teams such as the Super Bowl-worthy Patriots (12-3) and 49ers (12-3).

After leading San Francisco’s new-school offense with Colin Kaepernick at the beginning of this decade, offensive coordinator Greg Roman’s revolutionary offensive attack in Baltimore is nothing like we’ve ever seen in the pros. At least not to this dominantly-effective extent.

Give credit to Ravens head coach John Harbaugh for his willingness to let go of the past, and embrace this new style. This offseason, Baltimore bid farewell to Super Bowl 47 MVP Joe Flacco at the position. Flacco and Harbaugh were a rookie pair of quarterback and head coach in 2008, and had been together since.

But Harbaugh’s obvious faith in Jackson sparked the decision to roll with the No. 32 overall pick in the 2018 NFL Draft as it’s franchise.

Make no mistake, Baltimore has perfectly matched Jackson’s ability with coinciding personnel — a mauling offensive line, bruising running back Mark Ingram and the NFL’s best tight end trio in top man Mark Andrews, former first-round pick Hayden Hurst (selected before Jackson) and blocking H-back Nick Boyle.

Heck, first-round rookie Marquise “Hollywood” Brown is yet to be fully unleashed, not because Jackson is unable to throw downfield, but because those shots are not needed when Baltimore is methodically marching at a consistent pace, as is.

Although many insist Jackson will be “figured out,” — a loose term that has been tied somewhat to Cam Newton after his ridiculously-good 2015 MVP season in Carolina — it’s best to appreciate Jackson’s season for what it is, and note that there are signs that he will improve in the coming seasons, if you can believe that.

Jackson has become more polished since his playoff meltdown in a Wild Card loss to the Chargers in Baltimore last January. Now, Baltimore’s next meaningful game will be a playoff contest in nearly three weeks that they will host.

The spotlight will be on Jackson, and if we can expect consistency (and we should) with his extraordinary season, it’s that he’ll wow fans and defenders alike once more, as he attempts to end his season in his hometown in Miami, in Super Bowl 54.

But for now, an MVP award will do.

NFL MVP RACE

1. Lamar Jackson, QB, Baltimore Ravens. It’s over. The award is Jackson’s. And because of that, this will be my final MVP race rankings of the season.

2. Russell Wilson, QB, Seattle Seahawks. Wilson has done a lot to keep Seattle in the mix for a first-round bye, but he needs more help to take this team to a Super Bowl.

3. Jimmy Garoppolo, QB, San Francisco 49ers. If the 49ers’ early season dominance was about the defense, the second half of their season has been about the ascension of Jimmy Garoppolo.

4. Michael Thomas, WR, New Orleans Saints. At the very least, he deserves co-OPOY award honors with Christian McCaffrey, if not, an outright win. He’s been unstoppable this season. He can play as a ‘big’ slot receiver and as an outside force. What a player.

5. Deshaun Watson, QB Houston Texans/Patrick Mahomes, QB, Kansas City Chiefs. Both Watson and Mahomes have had some struggles at times, but they pale in comparison to their fantastic play throughout the season. These guys, coupled with Jackson, are the future of the AFC. The new wave of quarterbacks has arrived.

Next up: Christian McCaffrey, RB, Carolina Panthers

THE BETTER HALF

1. Baltimore Ravens (13-2) (Last week: 1). The Ravens should look to rest several players versus the Steelers, which include the banged up Marks — Ingram and Andrews. Both are vital to Baltimore’s Super Bowl chances.

2. San Francisco 49ers (12-3) (Last week: 2). Jimmy Garoppolo converted a pair of 3rd-and-16 situations late. The 49ers will clinch the NFC’s No. 1 seed with a win in Seattle. A loss will drop them to the No. 5 or 6 seed. That’s insane.

3. New Orleans Saints (12-3) (Last week: 3). It was a good sign that the Saints got Alvin Kamara going, and were able to remain effective in a cold, outdoor game in December versus a tough opponent.

4. Kansas City Chiefs (11-4) (Last week: 4). The Chiefs have allowed a league-best 9.6 points per game since Week 11. Their 2006 Colts prophecy remains intact.

5. New England Patriots (12-3) (Last week: 5). The Patriots offense finally got things going versus a top-tier defense in the Bills. Julian Edelman and James White are Brady’s top passing targets, but he’ll need N’Keal Harry and Rex Burkhead to join that group this postseason if they are to have success. But most importantly, if the offensive line plays like they did versus Buffalo on Saturday, a 2018-like run for New England is possible. Here they come again.

6. Green Bay Packers (11-3) (Last week: 7). The Packers can clinch a first-round bye with a win tonight and next week, and a Seattle win over San Francisco.

7. Minnesota Vikings (10-4) (Last week: 8). The Vikings won’t pass the Packers in the NFC North with a win tonight, but they will have gained some major confidence. Kirk Cousins (0-8 career record on Monday Night Football) needs this win.

8. Seattle Seahawks (11-4) (Last week: 6). The Seahawks are stumbling to the finish line. But they still have a shot at the NFC West title if they can beat the 49ers at home this Sunday night.

9. Houston Texans (10-5) (Last week: 10). The Texans are a topsy-turvy bunch, but an AFC South title and the No. 4 seed in the AFC (probably) will do.

10. Buffalo Bills (10-5) (Last week: 9). The Bills hung tough in New England. They’ll be a hard team to face in the postseason.

11. Tennessee Titans (8-7) (Last week: 11). The Titans’ end-of-season schedule has been brutal. They need to win at Houston to make the postseason.

12. Philadelphia Eagles (8-7) (Last week: 16). If they do indeed win the NFC East, I doubt the Eagles will make too much noise in the postseason, but they’ve shown their toughness down the stretch.

13. Pittsburgh Steelers (8-7) (Last week: 12). The Steelers have almost everything they need to be a top team this season, but are without a quarterback. That’s killed them.

14. Indianapolis Colts (7-8) (Last week: NR). Their midseason swoon was a shame, because they have talent. Keep the Colts in mind for your 2020 predictions.

15. Dallas Cowboys (7-8) (Last week: 13). Just a tragic end to the Cowboys season, if Philadelphia wins next week. Either way, Jason Garrett should be gone.

16. Los Angeles Rams (8-7) (Last week: 14). A rough way to end their year, but with a few moves and renewed sense of tenacity, the Rams may be back in the postseason fold in 2020.

Next up: Tampa Bay, Oakland, Chicago, Atlanta, N.Y. Jets

Lamar Jackson vs 49ers

NFL Monday Morning Madness: Can anyone stop Lamar Jackson, Ravens?

As I’ve said numerous times, gut check time in pro football begins after turkey day, as teams feel the added pressure that comes with important cold-weather games in December and January. Which teams are most positioned to make a run toward, and through the postseason? Which teams will fix their deficiencies in the next month?

I decided to do a column of quick-hits this week.

I’ll get to that in a second. But first, another look at Lamar Jackson and the seemingly Super Bowl-bound Ravens.

********

The rain came pouring down in Baltimore, as did the NFC-leading 49ers (10-2).

The Ravens (10-2) withstood both, beating yet another top-tier contender on their way to an eighth straight victory.

This one was decided on the game’s final play — a game-winning 49-yard field goal by Justin Tucker, the NFL’s best kicker, despite the conditions.

“To win a game like that is really valuable,” Ravens coach John Harbaugh told NFL.com. “We expect every game to be just like that. And sometimes they’re not, but the ones that count, and the ones that are, you have to be ready for.”

The Ravens were ready again, as they were during previous big-time (and blow-out) signature wins over the likes of the Seahawks, Patriots, Texans and Rams in recent weeks.

The two best defenses this season — New England and San Francisco — use very different schemes.

The Patriots rely more on 3-4 principles with bigger defensive lineman (Lawrence Guy, Danny Shelton) and a bevy of attacking linebackers to go with their league-best secondary.

The 49ers defense is a faster unit that uses the more common 4-3 look with four-down lineman all liable to rush the passer, with rookie Nick Bosa and DeForest Buckner among the men up front making life easier for the likes of linebacker Fred Warner and cover man Richard Sherman.

Jackson throttled the Patriots, and was efficient enough in the rain versus San Francisco. He’s beaten them both.

The Ravens are without question the best team in football at the moment. Their defense has begun to improve, as the offense has eviscerated opponents such as the Rams, who they beat 45-6 in Los Angeles last Monday.

Maybe a possible bad-weather bout in Buffalo versus the the stingy Bills (9-3) this week presents an opportunity for a hiccup. But the Ravens are rolling, and have showed no signs of slowing down.

Baltimore just recently started utilizing speedster Marquise ‘Hollywood’ Brown again, as he scored twice in the win over the Rams. But Jackson is not even using the deep ball anymore, which is something he can do. His rocket arm has been throwing darts on roll-out passes and on short and intermediate level throws over the middle. And that, coupled with a Jackson-led rushing attack has rendered this offense unstoppable.

But on a day in which Jackson threw for just 105 yards and one score (and lost a fumble) — rushing for 101 yards and a touchdown, as well — it was encouraging to see them win a tough, gritty game.

“Blowing people out is easy,” Ravens cornerback Jimmy Smith told The Athletic. “Being in a dogfight for four quarters, and always believing for four quarters, even longer if you have to, is a whole different mentality. I think to play in a game like this and fight to the end; it just helps our team realize our own resilience.”

In the end, after a defensive stop in their own territory, Baltimore’s familiar savior, Jackson, led the Ravens on a 12-play game-winning drive that ran out the remaining 6:28 on the game clock.

Until someone ends their red-hot streak — and maybe even if they do — the Ravens are the best team in football.

********

Now, for my thoughts, starting with the offensively-challenged Patriots —

– The Patriots are sputtering in early December for the second season in a row. Last year they recovered by the end of the month to win it all, but watching this offense this season is like pulling teeth at this point. It’s fair to wonder if New England will remain inept offensively for the rest of the season. No pass catcher other than Julian Edelman can get any separation or has earned Tom Brady’s trust. New England used a first-round pick on N’Keal Harry and a second-round draft choice next year to bring in Mohamed Sanu from Atlanta. Both have struggled to find their footing in their few games thus far, while NFL analyst Dan Orlovsky pointed out just how frustrated Brady seemed to be with third-year Patriot Phillip Dorsett last night. That leaves just Edelman and rookie Jakobi Meyers as players who seemingly have any consistent rapport with Brady, and Meyers upset Brady on Sunday, as well.

It’s beating a dead horse at this point — and maybe, a pipe dream — but New England could really use Antonio Brown to open things up on all levels of the offense. If the Patriots are stuck with what they have for the remainder of the season, then it at least appears that the offensive line is better with the return of Isaiah Wynn, which helps the running game, and gives Brady more time to throw. But Brady struggled to find receivers on longer-developing routes, even with time, because they fail to get open. If you take out a late push that can’t yet be deciphered for ‘garbage time’ or a real improvement, the Patriots are have now scored 17, 13, and 9 points on offense the last few weeks. I believe they’ll hang onto the No. 2 seed at the very least, but they’ve already been passed by the red-hot Ravens. Can this team win in Baltimore in an AFC Championship Game? Yes, but now without improving on offense, which is something that seems nearly impossible at this point for the Patriots. But we’ve all learned our lesson with them, so we’ll just have to wait and see.

– Deshaun Watson –three touchdown passes, one receiving score on a pitch-throw from DeAndre Hopkins — was fearless and MVP-like in leading a win in Houston. Ryan Tannehill — 5-1 as a starter in 2019 — lead Tennessee to yet another big win. The Texans (8-4) and Titans (7-5) are the two remaining contenders in the AFC South, as it would be a tough climb for the Colts (6-6) at this point. Houston and Tennessee will play twice in these final four weeks, which includes a Week 17 bout in Houston. Considering they’re a game up already, the edge goes to Houston, who just played (and won) their toughest remaining game. The Titans still have wild card hopes if they fall to Houston once, but that means probably having to win a home game versus the Saints (10-2) in Week 16. If Tenneseee splits their final four games and ends up out of the field at 9-7 via tiebreakers, the team is still worth marveling at. Tannehill has taken over for Marcus Mariota and lifted up a superbly-talented, but usually inconsistent team. And with Derrick Henry bowling over defenses, the Titans are a tough team built for the playoffs.

– Two other teams built for the playoffs include the Bills (9-3) and Steelers (7-5). Both have little to no shot at advancing past the Divisional Round, if not, Round 1, but each are built for cold weather football. And considering the bleakness of Week 15’s initial Sunday Night Football matchup (Vikings-Chargers), NBC announced last night during SNF that Bills-Steelers has been moved to that Sunday night slot in two weeks. That’s a wise decision. What’s better than a possible bad-weather or cold-weather matchup between these tough clubs vying for a postseason berth in December? Josh Allen is a younger looking Ryan Tannehill with more potential, wearing the same number (jersey no. 17). It took a few months, but Allen has found his footing with offseason acquisitions John Brown and Cole Beasley. The former victimized his former team (Cowboys) over Thanksgiving.

The Steelers have mostly stayed afloat thanks to great leadership under head coach Mike Tomlin, who would get my vote for Coach of the Year if Pittsburgh is to make the postseason. The Steelers currently have the No. 6 seed due to a tiebreaker with Tennessee. The Titans can make the playoffs one of two ways, and if they somehow beat out Houston for the AFC South crown, it would be the epitome of a tough wild card matchup in Bills-Titans in Tennessee. The game would also be the first playoff matchup between the two since the Titans beat the Bills in a 1999 AFC Wild Card playoff via the ‘Music City Miracle.’ 

– One thing is for certain, as we see teams like the Titans, Bills and Steelers strutting their stuff as tough cold-weather teams, clubs like the Raiders (6-6), Browns (5-7) Cowboys (6-6) and even Eagles (5-7) don’t seem like teams that are ready for a December run this season. Cleveland is just a disappointing mess. Oakland is virtually out after two embarrassing losses to the Jets and Chiefs by a combined score of 74-12, while at least one of Philadelphia and Dallas will get in via an NFC East title. The Eagles are usually a tough team that improves as the season moves along, and Dallas is seemingly entering their usual late-season swoon. But I give the edge to the Cowboys at the moment. They may fire Jason Garrett anyway if they suffer a rough home postseason loss in the Wild Card round, but the Eagles are too beat up on offense to beat Dallas right now, even at home. If I had to choose today, I say Dallas wins in Philadelphia on Week 16, to take the division. But I may change my opinion from now until that game begins.

THE BETTER HALF

1. Baltimore Ravens (10-2) (Last week: 1). There’s no debate — the Ravens are the best team in football right now.

2. San Francisco 49ers (10-2) (Last week: 2). The 49ers went toe to toe with the best team in football, and almost won on the road. We’ll keep them here for now. They’ll travel to New Orleans for a huge NFC tilt on Sunday.

3. New Orleans Saints (10-2) (Last week: 4). The Saints have a chance to take a tight grip on one of the NFC’s first-round byes — and possibly, home field advantage — with a win over San Francisco at home, next Sunday. 49ers at Saints. That’s quite the matchup.

4. New England Patriots (10-2) (Last week: 3). They showed fight at the end, but the offense has some serious issues. The defense is caliber of a Super Bowl-winning team. Brady and the offense have to figure this thing out. Can they?

5. Seattle Seahawks (9-2) (Last week: 5). The Seahawks have a chance to slip into the NFC West’s top spot for the moment, if they can beat the Vikings tonight.

6. Green Bay Packers (9-3) (Last week: 6). That was beauty of a snow game in New York on Sunday. That was a pretty win by the Packers, too. But then again, the Giants (2-10) are a mess. Green Bay is sort of in NFC limbo. They’re not quite with these top-tier teams in the conference, yet.

7. Minnesota Vikings (8-3) (Last week: 7). The whole world will be watching Kirk Cousins on the road in Seattle tonight. Will he deliver? Or will he fold? (His performance will probably lie somewhere in between)

8. Kansas City Chiefs (8-4) (Last week: 8). The defense came to play this week. But again, it was versus the Raiders. Before losing 40-9 to Kansas City on Sunday, Oakland lost 34-3 to the lowly Jets the week before. And the Jets lost to the then-winless Bengals this Sunday. Translation: are the Chiefs beginning their ‘2006 Colts’ path of an improved defense at just the right time? Or are they just the 2019 Chiefs? We’ll learn more after they travel to New England this week.

9. Houston Texans (8-4) (Last week: 9). Deshaun Watson was awesome in the win over New England. But the AFC South will be decided by the Texans’ two bouts with the Titans this month.

10. Buffalo Bills (9-3) (Last week: 13). I have been tough on the Bills. Well, that was a mighty impressive win in Dallas over Thanksgiving. I apologize, Buffalo. Believe it or not, I think they may be a tough matchup for Baltimore this week, too.

11. Los Angeles Rams (7-5) (Last week: 11). After getting clobbered by the Ravens, the Rams took their frustrations out on the Cardinals, throttling them 34-7 in Arizona. It will be tough for them to make the postseason. They’ll need to win out to have a shot. They have the talent. Jared Goff looked good in the win. It had been awhile.

12. Tennessee Titans (7-5) (Last week: 14). Tannehill and the Titans are an incredible story. Will they keep this up and get to the postseason? Can they steal away the AFC South from Houston?

13. Pittsburgh Steelers (7-5) (Last week: 15). Mike Tomlin does it again. The Steelers bullied the Browns in their revenge-filled win in Pittsburgh. It’s amazing how tough this team is. Resilient in the truest sense of the word.

14. Indianapolis Colts (6-6) (Last week: 12). They’re nowhere near being mathematically eliminated yet, but you just know they probably won’t make the postseason now. That’s a bummer. This franchise is still headed in the right direction.

15. Dallas Cowboys (6-6) (Last week: 10). The sky is falling in Dallas, but the sky may have already collapsed on the Eagles in Philadelphia. Which stooge will win the NFC East?

16. Chicago Bears (6-6) (Last week: NR). Even if they win out, they probably won’t make the postseason. But they’re better than anyone else not listed right now.

Next up: Philadelphia