90.) Ray Rice, Halfback, BAL
If you have ever read anything that I have written before than you know that I do not like to include players with one good year as elite. Ray Rice manages to be one of the few exceptions to this rule.
Rice is one of those players that did something so amazing in their first year that they cannot be ignored. In fact, it is with a straight face that I can say that Ray Rice was arguably the most impressive halfback in the National Football League last season. That’s right… arguably better than Chris Johnson.
While Chris Johnson came away with the NFL single-season record for all-purpose yards I think that most people would agree that it was Ray Rice who was the league’s best all-purpose back. Rice ran for an impressive 1,300 yards but he made up for this total by bringing in 78 receptions for over 700 yards. Those numbers alone are impressive but it is when you examine the consistency with which they were totaled that they truly become impressive.
In the 18 games in which Rice played in this past season he only dropped below four yards per carry three times.
Rice had at least three receptions in 16 of the 18 total games the Ravens played last season.
Rice surpassed 100 yards from scrimmage in 14 out of the 18 total games the Ravens played last season.
In the four games in which he didn’t exceed 100 yards from scrimmage he produced 82 yards, 75 yards, 71 yards and 89 yards.
In summation Ray Rice didn’t have a single bad game the entire season. He was the most consistent halfback this past season.
What was most impressive about Rice wasn’t the statistics in and of themselves but how they were compiled.
For instance when the Ravens were down by 13 in the fourth quarter against the Vikings it was Ray Rice who brought them back into the game. Rice made reception after reception as the Ravens eventually took the lead only to lose the game because of a missed field goal.
Rice would carry the Ravens in the fourth quarter again in Week 12 against the hated Steelers. Although the Steelers were depleted both teams needed the game for post-season positioning. With the game on the line on fourth down Rice proceeded to elude the defender, make a reception and haul butt downfield for a 50 yard gain. This set up the game-tying score to go into overtime.
Ray Rice is a beast and his league leading yards per touch at the halfback position proved it.
89.) Antoine Winfield, Cornerback, MIN
Imagine if you will that you could poll 100 random NFL fans regardless of the extent of their understanding of the game.
I would wager that the overall majority of them would claim that the job of a cornerback is to first get interceptions.
Of the remaining fans that didn’t list interceptions I would wager that these fans would focus on blanket coverage.
Sure blanket coverage is the premier job of a cornerback and yeah interceptions are nice but what is lost on a lot of people is the concept of a physical cornerback that gets involved against the run.
Physical play by a cornerback is something that is often overlooked in today’s league which has become a pass happy one after the events of the 2003 post-season. In fact only three cornerbacks (Revis, Finnegan and Winfield) immediately come to mind as being overall physical and of them only one has a reputation as a thorough run stopper; Antoine Winfield.
Winfield is the most physical cornerback in the league and when he is healthy he forces the opposition to gameplan for him.
Winfield loves to reroute receivers at the line of scrimmage and throw off their timing with their quarterbacks and few cornerbacks are as good at it as he is. When he reroutes guys it usually results in the other three members in the Vikings secondary getting picked on to the tune of a healthy passing day by the opposition.
As noted above blanket coverage is just one piece of a much larger puzzle.
Winfield finds himself on this list because teams have trouble running right off-tackle against the Vikings because Winfield is quick to seal the edge by throwing his body at halfbacks on top of his excellent coverage abilities. Winfield’s play against the run is unparalleled at the cornerback position.
Sure the “Williams Wall” is the predominate reason as to why the Vikings have been so effective against the run over the past three years but their damage is primarily inside. Winfield’s 95 tackles against the run in that span – or about three per every game he’s played in – is a large reason that team has so much success against the run.
Winfield is directly involved in stopping one of every six run plays by the opposition and allowed a mere three completions per game over the past three seasons. That kind of multi-faceted ability is something that is rare to find in a cornerback but should never be overlooked.
88.) O.J. Atogwe, Free Safety, STL
For quite a few seasons Rams fans have been telling me that Oshiomogho “O.J.”Atogwe is an elite safety that is incredibly underrated. To this I would often retort that he has all the pretty numbers but not the ones that are important; coverage metrics and non-“gifted” turnovers. In what was his “worst” season according to the stats hounds Atogwe showed me that he has the makings of an elite safety capable of making plays and not allowing the big play.
On a defensive unit that doesn’t exactly define the team Atogwe managed to shine when players that had previously had career years—James Butler and Ronald Bartell—regressed terribly. Atogwe finally turned into a guy who was forcing his turnovers rather than being the guy in the right place at the right time which had occurred for many of his career turnovers.
It is pretty obvious that in today’s NFL the traditional strong safety and the traditional free safety are being phased out. As a result of this gradual phasing out it is hard for a player who fits these roles to shine and yet Atogwe manages to do that.
Atogwe is a traditional free safety who loves to cover the deep third and make the occasional interception off the errant throw. In fact, perhaps because of this I have been punishing him for what occurs when one usually plays this role in getting a lot of interceptions off of errant throws.
As a result of this aforementioned role phasing, when a traditional free safety gets props from me it takes ability beyond catching errant throws and Atogwe has shown he can do that. Whether it be taking said interceptions back for positive yardage or by hitting receivers and jarring the ball lose Atogwe has shown he can be a traditional free safety that does more than catch errantly thrown balls.
What is most impressive about Atogwe that a lot of individuals do not know about is his big play preventing ability. As a result of continually playing deep the role of being the last line of defense falls on him often and he does it very well.
Atogwe averages about twenty tackles against ball carriers that get beyond the front seven per season over the past four years. That is more than one per game over that span. Despite this he has only missed 12 tackles over that span. This means that when a ball carrier eludes the Rams’ front seven and gets to Atogwe they usually don’t make it past him.
O.J. Atogwe is most definitely a top 100 player in this league.
87.) Chris Hope, Strong Safety, TEN
The entire Titans secondary had a down year in 2009 but I cannot ignore what Chris Hope has done throughout his career.
Chris Hope is one of the few safeties in the league that is capable of officially playing both the strong safety and free safety roles. In fact he has done just that as he was the free safety for the Pittsburgh Steelers in 2004 and 2005 and has been the strong safety for the Tennessee Titans ever since. He has done both at a Pro Bowl level, which is astounding.
In Pittsburgh, where Bill Cowher and Lebeau primarily ran a Cover Three style defense with Hope playing the deep third by himself, Hope was a prototypical free safety. He made sure nothing deep went over his head and made big hits on unsuspecting receivers. His play style allowed Troy Polamalu to flourish. It is because of this that Tennessee snatched him up in quickly after the Steelers Super Bowl run in 2005.
Upon getting to Tennessee Hope was moved to strong safety where he would get to employ more big hits and not hold as many coverage responsibilities. In short Tennessee was preparing for him to be the star in the secondary rather than the supporting guy that helps the other guy look like a star.
Sure Hope has had two down years in terms of coverage but his “down” years have been what many—myself included—would consider good. Hope doesn’t often let things get beyond his head because he knows how to cover the deep pass as well as any other safety out there.
What really impresses me about Hope is his range as a playmaker. He has averaged 94 total tackles per season in the last four seasons that he has completed. He’s made numerous tackles preventing receivers from gaining more yardage as well as a lot in the box. Just like O.J. Atogwe, Hope can make tackles after ball carriers make it beyond the front seven. He doesn’t just need to make plays there either; Hope can make tackles from sideline-to-sideline which is a rare thing to say for a safety.
What I love most about Hope though is his playmaking ability. Hope has averaged over three interceptions per season over the past five years. Additionally he has averaged two stuffs per season over that span as well. Finally he has added the ability to reach the quarterback behind the line of scrimmage to his repertoire over the past two years.
86.) David Stewart, Right Tackle, TEN
I absolutely love everything about David Stewart. He reminds me of one of my favorite players from earlier in this decade, John Runyan. This is because Runyan was always respected as the league’s best right tackle but never got his due because he was just that… a right tackle. After all, the NFL lore is that right tackles never get the respect that they are due.
Something that really impresses me about David Stewart is his character.
A lot of players begin to play the diva role when they are overlooked for accolades just one time. Stewart has been overlooked for accolades numerous times. David Stewart has only received a Pro Bowl or All-Pro nomination once during his entire career. Despite this he continues to just do his job and play at an elite level. In fact, he continues to do this despite playing opposite of the league’s best left tackle in Michael Roos.
Right tackles don’t get respect but if there is any player in the league that deserves respect beyond what their position is afforded it is David Stewart.
Stewart deserves the respect that I am requesting for him because he is far and away the best player in the league at his position. Few players in the league can say that they have no one rivaling them for the “best” title at their position. The only player that comes close in both phases of the game at the right tackle position to Stewart is Dolphins’ right tackle Vernon Carey.
Being expected to run block at a better level than left tackles is something that is expected of a right tackle. What isn’t expected is for a right tackle to run block at an elite level which Stewart does. Stewart is easily Chris Johnson’s favorite lead blocker and has been for both years of his career.
As impressive of a run blocker as Stewart is it is clear that his strength through his career has been his pass blocking.
David Stewart’s worst season as a pass blocker was his sophomore season where he allowed an “official” five sacks. Over his four year career Stewart has allowed only thirteen sacks. Those are some impressive numbers regardless of which side you have been lined up on; especially when you face Robert Mathis two times a year.
From a pass blocking stance David Stewart has shut down the likes of LaMarr Woodley, Mario Williams, Robert Mathis, Bart Scott, Shawne Merriman, Patrick Kerney, Michael Strahan and Jason Taylor. Sure those last four guys are no longer elite pass rushers but they make this list because Stewart shut them down in their prime. Even more impressive is that while those players were in their respective primes Stewart was just coming of age as a rookie and second year player.
85.) Kirk Morrison, Middle Linebacker, JAX
Kirk Morrison, like many on the back half of this list, is a player that consistently goes overlooked by NFL fans.
Hell even Raiders fans seem to forget that the guy is on the team. After all there’s no reason that they should continue calling other Raiders defenders better than him every other season.
I have heard Chris Johnson, Tyvon Branch, Michael Huff and Thomas Howard all hyped up more so than Morrison over the past three off-seasons and all for just one good season of play.
Well I have news for you guys… Kirk Morrison has had at least four good seasons of play.
It is my honest belief that if Kirk Morrison were to play for a team like the Ravens or Steelers at the inside linebacker spot he would be a perennial All-Pro. The reality is, however, that he plays for the Oakland Raiders who haven’t really had a lot of talent in the front seven while Morrison has been there.
With all due respect to players like Jonathan Vilma and David Harris, Morrison is “better” because he doesn’t have as much to work with surrounding him. This is because Raiders’ owner Al Davis continues to bring in questionable draft picks and coach signings rather than players to accommodate and help his best players such as Morrison.
After all those guys have considerable talent around them but when you think of the Raiders all you really think of is Nnamdi Asomugha. You should rightfully think of Nnamdi when thinking about the Raiders but immediately following the thought of “Aso” in your mind should be thoughts of Kirk Morrison.
I will be the first to admit that Morrison—like many of the back half of the top 10 linebackers—does have flaws in his game. He has a tendency to miss tackles and hasn’t thrown together a complete season as a run defender and coverage linebacker in three years. The thing about Morrison’s flaws, however, is that they are easily fixable by surrounding him with just a little bit more talent.
Morrison has been a great coverage linebacker but over the past two seasons has more often defended the run than the pass like a traditional middle linebacker. In selling out against the run Morrison has looked worse in defending the pass. A guy who usually can stay step-for-step with any tight end in the league has usually found himself behind because of missteps on playaction. The thing is when he had help in the front seven Morrison has shown himself to be an elite coverage linebacker in 2006 and 2007.
Evidence of Morrison selling out against the run is the fact that he was credited with 104 total tackles against halfbacks last season or roughly 78 percent. You usually do not find a number that high for elite linebackers.
Morrison might not stand out like a Patrick Willis or a Jon Beason but it is clear to see that he is certainly an elite linebacker and a top 100 player in this league and you should really expect Oakland to regress against the run – if that’s possible – due to him being gone.
84.) Thomas Davis, Outside Linebacker, CAR
As I so adamantly explained in Brian Cushing’s write-up the 4-3 outside linebacker position is one that is clearly dying in popularity. Few of them get Pro Bowl votes and even fewer get All-Pro consideration because their 3-4 counterparts only have to reach 10 sacks to be impressive.
Even with the position falling into obscurity amongst casual fans and groups like ESPN as long as guys like Thomas Davis are around the position will not fall into obscurity. With that said Davis is a clear cut example of how overlooked the position truly is.
Though Jon Beason is the overall better player it was pretty clear that Thomas Davis was the best linebacker on the Panthers last season. Despite the fact that Davis was so good last season he got little recognition outside of a few hardcore football fan circles.
Davis is a do-it-all player that can—as the title implies—do it all.
He makes tackles all over the field including in the box and along the sidelines. Even more impressive about this is the fact that he can run to the opposite side of the field to make a tackle which most players could not do. Davis is also very stout when it comes to coverage.
Davis is rarely beaten for the big play whether it be a big catch, a long catch and run or a touchdown. On top of that he loves to make plays on the ball. Sure all of his interceptions aren’t from well thrown passes but he is still a playmaker when the ball is in the air.
Another impressive aspect of Davis’ game is his ability to weave in-and-out of traffic despite the Panthers not really having a dominating front four. Over the past four seasons Davis has 22 stuffs against the run including two astounding seasons of nine and eight stuffs in 2007 and 2008 respectively. Davis has also had a penchant for making the more splashy play behind the line of scrimmage as he 11 career sacks.
As I alluded to Davis’ coverage and playmaking I think I should note his ability to defend the pass via passes defensed. Davis has averaged 5.5 passes defensed per season over his career as a starter. It is hard enough for a linebacker to get their hands on the ball in the air a few times in a season so doing it over a career is impressive. The fact that most aren’t at the line of scrimmage is even more impressive.
Thomas Davis is a great do-it-all player who doesn’t get the respect that he deserves.
Unfortunately I was recently informed that he suffered a second ACL tear in the past seven months. While it will not cause him to fall off of this list it hurts his status for next year due to emerging players and honorable mentions chomping at the bits.
83.) Lance Briggs, Outside Linebacker, CHI
When writing about the 4-3 outside linebackers on this list I have done absolutely nothing but rave because they are all so underrated. Lance Briggs is most definitely the first person that comes to mind when I speak of the position because he has steadfast represented the position at an elite level since 2004.
Briggs totally represents what it means to play this “do-it-all” position.
Though many people thought that it was his teammate Brian Urlacher that was the league’s preeminent coverage linebacker it was actually Briggs who was shutting down opposing tight ends and receivers.
In 2004 and 2005 as per numerous metrics sources—including Football Outsiders and KC Joyner—Briggs blew the competition out of the water in terms of coverage. He drew more assignments than all other linebackers and still posted the best metrics around. Even more impressive is that he was drawing receiver assignments almost as much as Nathan Vasher, the team’s number two cornerback over that time.
The aforementioned fact about coverage might lead one to believe that Briggs is a prototypical and stereotypical Tampa Two linebacker that is lost doing something else but that isn’t true. Briggs isn’t one of those typical undersized Tampa Two linebackers who’s playmaking is simply defined by their ability to flock to the ball after an offensive gain. Briggs is a playmaker in every sense of the word.
Since entering the league in 2003 Briggs has averaged a ridiculously high seven stuffs per season as well as about an additional sack per season as well. Briggs’ ability to weave in and out of traffic is almost unparalleled amongst all other outside linebackers in the league. For the longest time a lot of us believed that Briggs’ ability to weave through traffic was due primarily to Tommie Harris but with the latter’s decline Briggs has still managed to be a playmaker beyond the line of scrimmage.
Perhaps what is most impressive about Briggs is the fact that he knows how to fly all over the field a la a Tampa Two linebacker and make tackles. It doesn’t matter whether it’s on his side of the field or the opposite side and behind the line of scrimmage; Lance Briggs knows how to maneuver through the 21 other guys on the field to make a play.
With Brian Urlacher coming off of a major injury and the rest of the team being up there in age it is clear that this team—or at least the defense—now belongs to Lance Briggs.
DeSean Jackson is an athletic freak and quite possibly the second fastest player in the league with the ball in his hands behind Chris Johnson.
I have found myself in numerous arguments with Eagles fans about what kind of player Jackson is and last year they got the last laugh.
Sure Jackson hasn’t quite emerged as an elite receiver—though I don’t think he ever will be—but as an overall football player he is easily one of the league’s 100 best players.
Why is DeSean Jackson a top 100 player in this league despite not being a top receiver?
It is quite simple actually.
DeSean Jackson is—in one word—a playmaker. When Jackson gets his hands on the ball there is a big chance he can take it all the way.
Now we can debate all day whether or not the majority of his receiving touchdowns came against blown coverages but that will not change the fact that he reached the endzone through the air nine times last season. In fact, maybe Jackson should be commended for making the plays when the opportunity arose because not all players do.
However, what makes Jackson such a great playmaker—and thus I listed him as a specialist—is the dimensions that he brings outside of receiving.
DeSean Jackson primarily took snaps as a wide receiver and put up a commendable—though not elite—season from the position last year. What put his season over the top was the three additional touchdowns that he scored via punt returns and rushing the ball. In fact he produced a punt return touchdown and a rushing touchdown in his rookie campaign as well.
With DeSean Jackson it is very possible that you can phase him out of a game but the second that somebody in your secondary takes a misstep in coverage or somebody on the kick coverage unit takes a bad angle Jackson will make you pay. That kind of athleticism and penchant for the big play is something that cannot be overlooked.
DeSean Jackson won’t beat you by running excellent routes over the middle, he won’t make the tough catch in traffic and he won’t make the circus catch. Even though Jackson currently cannot do those things he most certainly does not have to. All he has to do is keep being the playmaker that he is. If he keeps doing that he will get my respect.
81.) LaMarr Woodley, 3-4 Outside Linebacker, PIT
When LaMarr Woodley emerged as an elite pass rusher during the 2008 season it served as no surprise to Steelers fans. They knew – at least somewhat – that they had a pretty great bullrusher in Woodley. After all in limited snaps during the 2007 season he served as his team’s second best pass rusher.
What Steelers fans didn’t know though is that Woodley would be making a push for some pretty good company as an elite 3-4 outside linebacker. They also didn’t know that the same push would be because he is arguably the most complete overall 3-4 outside linebacker factoring in abilities against the run and in coverage.
Several people felt that Woodley should have made the “100 Most Impactful Players” list last off-season but I felt that he needed another year of success underneath his belt. Many felt that he would emerge as a truly elite player in 2009 and take the Steelers pass rushing title from teammate James Harrison. As Harrison got off to a hot start and Woodley played stagnantly it seemed as if this sentiment would be wrong. The end result differed greatly from the start however.
After the Steelers’ bye week Woodley became the most effective 3-4 outside linebacker in the league recording at least half a sack in eight straight games.
What made Woodley’s production so impressive was the fact that teammate James Harrison had cooled down. While most elite pass rushers get to rush the quarterback’s blindside Woodley is always seen when he is coming after the quarterback. As a result Woodley missed three potential sacks.
People may feel that I am crazy but what impresses me the most about LaMarr Woodley is how much his career is starting to mirror the start of DeMarcus Ware. The only differences between the two right now is that Woodley sat during his rookie campaign like most Steelers players do and that Woodley plays the strong side of the field. Other than that the parallels are there.
In his second and third year combined Woodley notched 25 sacks, 122 total tackles, seven passes defensed, one interception, three forced fumbles and two touchdowns. In comparison, DeMarcus Ware had notched 25.5 sacks, 155 total tackles, nine passes defensed, one interception, nine forced fumbles and one touchdown.
What is most impressive about Woodley’s game thus far in my opinion is his coverage.
Woodley played almost every snap of his collegiate career with his hand in the dirt and was transitioned into a 3-4 outside linebacker by LeBeau. Despite this Woodley has spent almost as much time in the NFL as a pass rusher as he has a pass defender.
LaMarr Woodley is a beast and so I will leave you with a fact that even he was unaware of until NFL.com/NFL Network employee Jason La Canfora informed him:
Only two players in the NFL have active streaks of over one season with 11.5 sacks. Jared Allen and LaMarr Woodley. Pretty good company.