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Saturday, 2 June 2012

TPL100 - From #50 - #41

Introduction | #100-#91 | #90-#81 | #81*-#71 | #70-#61 | #60-#51 | #50-#41 | #40-#31 | #30-#21 | #20-#11 | #10-#1

A few hours late, we present below the sixth part of our TPL countdown, featuring some of the most fearsome and dominant defensive players the NFL has to offer, two quarterbacks - one of whom might have one of the most polarizing personalities in the league, and three offensive skill players who embody the evolution their respective positions as the modern pro game solidifies itself as being pass-first.

Throughout the last decade, Richard Seymour has been one of the best defensive linemen in the league, whether playing at end or tackle. In many ways, his accolades speak for themselves, earning seven Pro Bowl berths, making five All-Pro teams (three first teams, two second teams – four first teams if you hold the PFW teams in equal regard as the Associated Press teams), and even being named to the All-Decade first team for the 2000s as a defensive tackle. At 32, Seymour is probably approaching to end of his peak, but his numbers remain impressive, getting six sacks last season, his most since donning the silver and black, while appearing in all sixteen games for only the fourth time in his career, making the Pro Bowl for the second straight year, and being an All-Pro for the first time since leaving Foxboro. 2012 is a contract year for Seymour, and as he'll be one month removed from 34 when the 2013 season begins, he'll have to produce in a big way to prove to teams he has enough left in the tack to warrant the big contract he'll inevitably demand (he currently earns $15 million in Oakland) – which might make him all the more dangerous on the field this year.

Playing only thirteen games in his first two seasons – including just three in 2010 – there was a serious risk that the 2009 #1 overall draft pick would have gone down as bust if he found himself on injured reserve again in 2011. Instead, Stafford remained healthy through all sixteen games for the first time in his career, and in turn fully justified his draft status, leading the Lions to their first playoff appearance this millennium. Not satisfied in just taking Detroit into the postseason, Stafford also became just the fourth person in NFL history to throw for over 5000 yards, adding in a ridiculously impressive 41 touchdowns – to put it into context, even if you take away the touchdowns Stafford threw to the manbeast that is Calvin Johnson, Stafford would still have thrown 25 TDs, which would have still been good for the tenth-most in the league. If Stafford's 2011 season is indicative of what we'll see from him in the future, there is every chance that Stafford will one day rank #1 in the TPL100 in a few years time... and there lies the rub; while there's no question that the talent we saw this season was the real deal, was Stafford's durability in 2011 a fluke? Were his injury-shortened 2009 and 2010 campaigns sheer freak accidents? If Stafford finds himself missing significant gametime through injury in 2012, the Lions might have to find themselves investing a lot of money in a high-level backup – and Stafford might never be able to reach the potential he flashed in his third year. Only time will tell.

In the game of football, statistics cannot tell you anywhere near as much about a player's performance as gamefilm can. Nonetheless, here's one stat for you that might reinforce why the loss of T-Sizzle for at least the first half of the season is such a blow for the Ravens' D: since 2003, his first in the league, of the Ravens' 361 sacks, Suggs can lay claim to 82.5. That's an astonishing 23% of all Baltimore sacks (well, 22.85%, technically). Now, while of course Suggs has benefited from playing in some fantastic defences, taking advantage of opportunities provided by the play of some truly elite team mates, nonetheless Suggs has been a huge terror for opposing quarterbacks – in the wake of his Achilles tendon injury, several of his colleagues talked in the media about how much of an impact Suggs had purely as a threat, someone who got inside the head of QB s and impacted their game before the first snap. Coming off a season where he was voted the Defensive Player of the Year, as well as making his first appearance in the All-Pro first team, Suggs' impact on the Ravens' D might be very noticeable in 2012 by its absence.

Arrogant, smug, loudmouth with a face that looks like it was drawn by a caricaturist – just some of the ways you could describe Philip Rivers. Here's another: undoubtedly one of the top quarterbacks in the league today. Between 2008 and 2010, Rivers had three incredible seasons, topping four thousand passing yards, posting a QB rating of over 100, and leading the league in passing yards per attempt in each, leading the league in passing touchdowns in '08 and passing yards in 2010. His 2011 season saw Philip Rivers' play regress a little – racking up a career high 20 interceptions, while having his first season with a QB rating of under 90 since 2007 – but he still put up the second most passing yards in a season for his career, and still ended the season in the top 10 for pretty much all major statistical categories for a QB except for passer rating (where he ranked 11th). Rivers will be 31 this season, so he should still be one of the better QB s in the league for a good few years yet – but 2012 will show whether or not he can get back to the elite form he showed between 2008 – 2010.

There may not be a better all round weapon than Darren Sproles in the league. Need someone to catch a screen pass out of the backfield and take it for a 30+ yard gain? Call on Sproles. Need a punt return taken to the house to shift the momentum of entire games? Make sure Sproles is back there. Need a slot receiver who's a threat to run any route in the passing tree? Dial up #43. Need a running back who is shifty enough to make the most agile linebacker miss, is equally adept running between the tackles as he is bouncing to the outside, and is a threat to score a touchdown every single time he touches the ball, whether it's as a handoff, a pass or a return? Then you need Darren Sproles. The man who had more all purpose yards last season than any other person in the entire history of the league, Darren Sproles is a truly all-round weapon, someone who can anything his coaches ask of him, and, with the league gravitating further away from the running game and closer to the run with every season, in the copy-cat NFL, Sproles may very well be the prototype and the blueprint for the running back position for the next ten years.

We've already talked about how one weapon in Terrell Suggs' arsenal is the psychological fear he puts in quarterbacks' minds. Take that fear, intensify it by 400%, and you get James Harrison. The man is not just intense, he is downright insane. James Harrison may be the most feared man in the league between the sidelines, for one reason – the man simply does not care. Not about his own health, not about the health of the people he hits, and certainly not a damn about what the league thinks about his style of play. Entering the league as an undrafted free agent in 2002, Harrison has had to claw and scratch his way into the starting lineup, spending most of his first two years in the league bouncing between the Steelers' practice squad, active roster (appearing in just one game before 2004), and his couch – being released by Pittsburgh three times. Harrison eventually caught on as a special teamer, before breaking into the starting line up in 2007, going to the Pro Bowl every year since then until last year, making both the AP first and second All-Pro teams twice each, and building up a reputation as a truly dangerous player, one who will do whatever he can to stop his opponents, both inside and outside the rules of the game. At 34, his body may not have many seasons left – Harrison missed four games through injury (and one through suspension) last season – but for as long as he is a Steeler, you can be assured there will be thirty one terrified starting quarterbacks in the NFL.

Since moving from defensive end to outside linebacker when Kansas City switched from a 4-3 to a 3-4 defense Tamba Hali has proven to be one of the most intriguing pass rushers in the league, racking up 35 sacks in the three seasons since taking his hand off the ground, being selected to two Pro Bowls (although declining the 2010 invitation due to personal reasons) and an All-Pro second team, leading the AFC in sacks in 2010 and coming second in the same category in 2011. One of Hali's greatest assets is his consistency, missing only one game in his career (starting every other game), leading the Chiefs in sacks in five of his six seasons and notching up four forced fumbles in each of the last three years. Now having to deal with both Peyton Manning and Philip Rivers in his division, the Chiefs will live or die by Hali's pass rushing skills. If he continues with the same consistency he's shown throughout his career, KC might end up a lot closer to the division crown than you might think.

I wonder if Mike Singletary is ready to acknowledge Vernon Davis as a 'winner' now? After an inauspicious beginning to his career, which threatened to saddle the former #6 overall pick with the damning 'bust' label, Davis finally 'got' it in 2009, when his 13 TD catches tied for the league lead while picking up a career-high 965 receiving yards. Davis can play the 'receiving TE' role as well as anyone in the league – his TD grab in the NFC Divisional playoff game against the Saints to take the lead with nine seconds left is undoubtedly one of the most memorable moments of the 2011 season – but Davis has also really come along as a run-blocker, something that many 'receiving' tight ends struggle with. Davis' ability to make huge contributions in both the running and passing game makes him one of the most well-rounded tight ends in the league – the only thing keeping him from competing in the stats department with the Jimmy Grahams and Rob Gronkowskis of the world is the guy throwing him the ball. Speaking of which...

One of the most recent additions to the legacy of college basketball players-turned-tight ends, Jimmy Graham has already established himself among the league's best at the position after only two seasons. After sitting behind fellow ex-Hurricane Jeremy Shockey as the #2 TE in his rookie season, Graham exploded in his first season as a starter, very narrowly missing out on the new record for receiving yards by a TE to Gronkowski, leading the Saints with 11 TD grabs and proving a matchup nightmare for defensive coordinators with his combination of his 6'6” height and 4.53 40 time. Graham has proven he can be effective as a run-blocker at times, but needs to show some more consistency before he will be as much of an all-round TE as Gronkowski and Davis – Graham is actually more likely to be seen in a two-point than a three-point stance, regardless of whether he's split out wide or tight to the line. Still, run-blocking is a much smaller part of the tight end's role than it once was, and as a receiving TE, there is almost no-one better.

After bursting onto the scene in 2010 with one of the best rookie seasons a defensive lineman's ever had, leading all defensive tackles with sacks and being named a first-team All-Pro, 2011 was a much quieter year for Suh on the field. Off the field, bizarre allegations surrounded him of crashing cars to impress women, while the nation saw the ugly side of Suh as he stomped a Packers offensive lineman during Thanksgiving, resulting in a two-game suspension. He notched just four sacks, while contributing a combined total of only 39 combined solo and assisted tackles, a surprisingly low number for someone hailed to have already taken on the mantle of the best three-tech in the league by the end of his rookie season. And yet, Suh still ranks #41 on our list; the fact is, while Suh's sack total was perhaps an overstatement of his actual season, with a few of those sacks being gifted by the play of those on the line around him, he is still a phenomenal talent. Yes, he did lose his head in 2011, being labelled a dirty player while growing visibly more frustrated as the season wore on, but these factors are not at all uncommon, often being symptoms of the fabled 'sophomore slump' – no doubt, the fact that he found such success so quickly as a rookie set him up for a second-year fall. Nonetheless, Suh has plenty of film now on what to improve on – and if he is the player his rookie season hinted that he is, he will learn to eradicate those errors from his play – and when he does, his 2010 numbers might seem paltry by comparison to what he may yet go on to achieve.

Join us tomorrow for part seven of our countdown, which you'll all be delighted to hear features no less than seven linemen, five of them offensive (those guys never get enough credit) - including the highest-ranked non-consensus player on the countdown.

- Gur "Fred" Samuel (@FredTheGur)
- The Pulling Linemen

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