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Thursday, 27 June 2013

TPL 100 2013: 70 - 61

Introduction | #100-#91 | #90-#81 | #80-#71 | #70-#61 | #60-51 | #50-41 | #40-#31 | #30-21 | #20-#11 | #10-#1

Welcome back! We continue our march towards the regular season with one name from out Top 100 coming out every day. As we hit the top 70 we're coming into elite territory with perennial Pro Bowlers and mutliple All-Pros at almost every spot.

As ever, if you disagree with our ranking, think a player is too high or too low please do leave a comment or hit us up on Twitter or Facebook and we'll answer in full in our mailbag section.

So let's get into it again, starting with our 70th ranked player.

70. Brandon Marshall, WR, Chicago Bears (TD = 72, PG = 91, GS = 80)
2012 Ranking: --

P: Casey Rhee
Despite putting together 5 consecutive 1,000 yard seasons, and missing just 4 games through injury in those 5 years, Brandon Marshall found himself being traded for the 2nd time after the 2011 season. His 2 seasons in Miami had been plagued with drops in key situations, particularly in the endzone, which left a bad taste despite being a very reliable receiver otherwise. But it's not his performances on sunday that have been the issue.

Marshall's wikipedia page cites 9 different run-in's with the law, from DUI's to domestic violence and assault that date back to his college days and include being present when Broncos teammate Darrent Williams was fatally shot in 2007.

His off-field issues seemed to come to a head in 2011 when Marshall was diagnosed with borderline personality disorder. Despite this clearly not affecting his on-field performance, the Miami Dolphins still felt it prudent to trade Marshall for 2 third round picks, just 2 seasons after acquiring him for a pair of 2nd rounders.

So in March 2012, after years of struggling to find a consistent outside threat, the Chicago Bears reunited Marshall with his former Broncos quarterback Jay Cutler. Marshall went on to post a terrific 2012 season, setting career highs in receptions (118), receiving yards (1,508) and receiving touchdowns (11). All of which earned him a 4th trip to Hawaii, his first ever 1st team All-Pro berth and more importantly, his first appearance in the TPL Top 100.

Marshall is a physically dominant wide receiver. At 6 foot 4 and 229lbs he's at a massive advantage over the majority of NFL cornerbacks while also possessing the raw speed to get separation deep. It's understandable then, that he became such a consistently good option for Jay Cutler. Even when double-teamed and seemingly covered, Marshall can out-jump and out-compete defenders for the football, a trait which lead him to becoming the 2nd most targeted receiver in 2012.

With tight end Martellus Bennett and 1st round tackle/guard Kyle Long now on the Bears books, 2013 looks like it could be an even more productive year for both the Bears offense and the 29 year old receiver. (TD)

69. Jairus Byrd, FS, Buffalo Bills (TD = 50, PG = 50, GS = 90)  
2012 Ranking: --

If someone came up to you out of nowhere and suddenly put an NFL trivia question to you (as so often happens in all of our day-to-day lives), would you know the answer to the following poser?: which NFL player has been voted an All-Pro twice, a Pro Bowler twice, led the NFL in interceptions one season and his conference in another, all in his first four years in the league?
P: Wikimedia Commons

When you start thinking of the better safeties in the league, there are some players who jump instantly to mind: Troy Polamalu and Ed Reed still carry cache among the more casual NFL fan, though entirely down to name recognition rather than level of play the past few years; Eric Weddle's star has been on the rise the past few years; Eric Berry's phenomenal rookie season has affixed him in the minds of many as a top safety, though the reality is he's subsequently failed to match his first year in the league; and there is, of course, the league's top safety duo in Earl Thomas and Kam Chancellor. Yet, there is one name that typically is left off such a list, the curse of playing on an underachieving defense on a thus-far mediocre team: Jairus Byrd.

Though trapped in the frosty wastes of Buffalo, Byrd (who, in case you hadn't sussed by now, was the answer to that trivia question) has put together one of the best starts to a safety's career in recent times. After his own astonishing rookie season, during which he nabbed a league-leading nine interceptions before coming to an early end after being placed on injured reserve after Week 15, Byrd's only rounded out all aspects of his game in the subsequent three seasons. As a sophomore, he got his first sack, his first pick-six, his first forced fumble and his first fumble recovery (actually getting three forced fumbles and two recoveries), while dramatically increasing his number of tackles as he began to emerge as a surer tackler against the run in addition to his ball-hawking skills he showed off as a rookie. In 2011, he set a career-high in tackles; last season, a career-high in forced fumbles, putting his ever-increasing improvement in the run game with an AFC-leading five picks in 2012, getting his second Pro Bowl berth and his second election to the Associated Press's All-Pro second team. Yet, despite this, Byrd is often overlooked nationally, not helped by the fact he's played just three nationally-televised regular season games in his career, two as a rookie which the Bills both lost - and only one of the three not being a Thursday night game on NFL Network, the least prestigious of the weekly primetime games. On a team with a more visible profile, there's no question Byrd would be a star; but on a team which very rarely gets a primetime slot to showcase their talent, in a division where there is very little question over who will come first, and has two other teams much more media-friendly than his own, the Oregon product receives nowhere near the plaudits he deserves. Perhaps he knows this: scheduled to be a free agent, Byrd has been slapped with the franchise tag for 2013; in response, he stayed away from the team's minicamp earlier this month. If the team cannot get a long-term contract done in the next two weeks, Byrd will likely be a free agent after this season - and if there's any justice in the NFL world, he'll rightly be one of the most coveted, if not incredibly underrated, safeties to hit free agency in recent memory. (GS)

68. Ben Roethlisbeger, QB, Pittsburgh Steelers (TD = --, PG = 69, GS = 35)
2012 Ranking: 21

P: Wikimedia Commons
When it comes to legal indiscretions, Big Ben has been somewhat surpassed in recent days, but the tarnish of that 4-game suspension in 2010 for violating the NFL's personal conduct policy for alleged sexual assault will likely stick with him for a long time. Heck, he was even immortalised as a sex addict in South Park episode "Sexual Healing".

But let's look past Big Ben's wandering hands to the footballer behind them. He is a double Super Bowl winning QB, with two Pro Bowl appearances and a tonne of rookie records thanks to his outstanding baptism of fire year in 2004, when the Steelers went all the way to the AFC Championship game and Roethlisberger went 13-0 as a starter in the regular season. His wins on the biggest stage of all, Superbowl XL vs the Seahawks, and XLIII vs the Cardinals could not be more polar opposites of each other, and show the boom and bust play that Ben will always give a team. In XL, Ben completed just 9 passes all game, for 123 yards and 2 INTs. His QB rating of 22.6 is the lowest in Super Bowl history by a winning quarterback, but despite this he became the youngest ever QB to win the big one at 23. By XLIII his game had matured some, and not only were the Cardinals on the receiving end of 21-of-30 for 256yds, but he drove the Steelers 88 yards in 8 plays inside the final 2:30 of the game, culminating in Santonio Holmes' unbelivable game winning 8-yard reception in the endzone. Of course, 2 years later he was unable to make it three-for-three against the Packers, failing on a final minute drive to convert 4th-and-5 at his own 33, and losing the game 31-25.

He ranked as high as 21 in TPL100 last year, thanks to taking the Steelers to 12-4 in the regular season, and only narrowly losing out of the Denver Tebows in the AFC Wild Card round, which he couldn't really be blamed for having brought his team back from 20-6 down and tying the game at 23s with an electric and elusive completion to Jericho Cotchery for a game tying 31-yard TD.

What has hurt Ben, in more ways than one, are his injury issues. Roethlisberger hasn't played a 16 game season since 2008, and that is his ONLY 16 game season in 9 seasons in the NFL. In 2010 he was suspended, in 2011 he had a high-ankle sprain, in 2012 it was his ribs and shoulder, and in the off-season in 2013 he's already had arthroscopic surgery on his knee to clean it up, the second time in seven years he's had the procedure on the same knee.

Whilst Ben's talent is undoubted, and his ability to extend the play even with huge pressure in his face is a massive asset for the Steelers, the fact he does take so many hits makes him vulnerable to injury, no matter how physically imposing he is. A 16-game Ben is a top 50 player in the TPL100 without doubt. A 12-15 game Ben, as he usually is, is 68th. (PG)

67. Sean Lee, ILB, Dallas Cowboys (TD = 78, PG = 72, GS = 89)
2012 Ranking: 92

P: US Dept. of Agriculture
Last season I left Sean Lee, a 2nd round pick in 2010 out of Penn. State, off of my top 100 because I wanted to see him play more before "anointing" him. So can 6 games in 2012 (A severe case of turf toe sidelined him for the rest of the year) really justify the ranking I gave him? When they were a continuation of his excellent 2011 season, absolutely.

His 6 games featured 58 tackles, an interception, a forced fumbled and 3 passes defended. He was everywhere for the Cowboys, flying around the field, sniffing out screens and covering like he had eyes in the back of his head. Lee's play has pushed him firmly into the "elite" discussion, whether or not he can be elite in everyone's eyes will have to do with him staying on the field in 2013.

His work in coverage has fast becoming some of the best in the league at his position, and is one of the big reasons why Dallas' recent hire of Monte Kiffin makes sense. Lee's range and instincts in space are truly outstanding and with the transition to Kiffin's tampa 2 defense the comparisons to recently-retired Brian Urlacher have been flying in. While Lee lacks the size and power of Urlacher in the run game, at 26 Sean Lee is entering his prime and has the ability to truly excel in his new role.

If Lee can stay on the field in 2013 expect him to continue his march up our rankings. (TD)

66. Johnathan Joseph, CB, Houston Texans (TD = 55, PG = -- , GS = 48)
2012 Ranking: 24

Johnathan Joseph and Troy Nolan
P: Rick Burtzel
There are a few teams right now who can make a case for having the best cornerback duo in the league; but just a few years ago, it was pretty much unanimously agreed that the Bengals had the best pair of CBs in the NFL in Johnathan Joseph and Leon Hall. While Hall still plies his trade in stripes (and, unlike with some historical and current Benagls players, we're talking tiger stripes here, not prison uniforms), injuries and age have seen him fade the past few years; his former partner across the field, however, continues to be one of the top corners in the game, trading chilly Ohio for a balmy Texas and Cincy's orange cats for Houston's blue bulls.

In his two years in Houston, Joseph has been part of a huge turnaround in the team's fortunes, particularly in their passing defense; in fact, the two seasons since Joseph joined the team saw them finish in the top half of the league for passing yards allowed for only the second and third times in their history (the only other occasion being their inaugural season in 2002), finishing third in passing defense in 2011 after coming in 32nd in 2010. While Joseph clearly is not the sole reason for this dramatic turnaround in passing defense, he has undeniably been a huge factor in the uptick in fortunes - while Wade Phillips' defensive coordinating has been one of the best in the NFL the past two years, his passing defenses were never as successful when he called the defense in Dallas as they have been in Houston, with Joseph being one of the first players the team brought in after Phillips was hired.

When you look more into the Phillips scheme, as employed both by Wade and his father, the legendary Bum (no sniggering in the back, please), you realise just how good Joseph is - the scheme simply cannot work without a true shutdown corner who can be left on an island all game. There are, at best, five or so corners who are that good, and Joseph is one of them. With what is effectively a 5-2 defensive front, Phillips deploys his safeties as additional in-the-box defenders, or have them in man-coverage with a one-high shell, or even Cover 0, because Joseph can be trusted to execute his assignments down-in, down-out, in a way very few defenders can. Whether it's pressing receivers at the line of scrimmage and using his physicality and his polished technique to keep them covered all the way down the field, or locking down a zone with ease, either coming in to break up would-be catches or playing the ball as good as anyone (having only once in his career finished a season without double-digit pass deflections), Johnathan Joseph is simply one of the premier cornerbacks in the NFL, one whose rare skillset allows Wade Phillips to employ defensive schemes he wouldn't dare risk trying without having a corner of his caliber on the roster, and one who shows no sign of slowing down as he heads into his eighth season in 2013. (GS)

65. Jason Witten, TE, Dallas Cowboys (PG) (TD = 53, PG = 49, GS = -- )
2012 Ranking: 62

P: Jeff Kern
There must be something in this consistency business, as Jason Witten finds himself in the 60-70 range of the TPL100 for the second year running, falling 3 spots to 65. And consistency is really the overriding theme of Witten's excellent 10 year Pro career, which has seen him climb up the rankings of the best tight ends of all time and set a number of Cowboy and NFL records.

Not since his rookie year has Witten missed a game, including to start the 2012 season where Witten played against medical advice in the Cowboys' week 1 matchup against the Giants, just 4 weeks after lacerating his spleen in the pre-season opener at Oakland. He may have only made 2 receptions for 10 yards that day, but just his presence was inspirational for Dallas, who went on to win the game 24-17. It's ballsy efforts like that which have earned Witten his Iron Man reputation, and the respect that fans, players, and NFL alums have for him is evident, having been to 8 Pro Bowls, 6 All-Pro team nominations, 3 NFL Alum TE of the Year Awards, and earlier in 2013 he was given both the Walter Peyton Man of the Year and the Bart Starr Award for Athletes in Action due to his excellence off the field through his foundation work.

His team might have been mediocre through 2012 finishing 8-8, but Witten was a highlight. 110 receptions is an NFL record for tight ends, as was his total of 18 receptions in week 8 in the return match vs the Giants. His season total of 1,039 yards was his 6th in a row with over 900, and he did it all as part of an offense that has Miles Austin and Dez Bryant on the outside drawing plenty of targets away from him.

His big body-soft hands combination is rare, and something only the best TEs are blessed with. Witten is one of those guys. (PG)

64. Percy Harvin, WR, Seattle Seahawks (TD = 37, PG = --, GS = 65)
2012 Ranking: --

P: Mike Morbeck
At 5 foot 11 and 200lbs, Percy Harvin is one of the least imposing players in the NFL today. And we rank him at 64th overall. One could call that madness, but when you look at the price paid to acquire his services this off-season then you see that NFL teams (or at least one) value him just as much as we do.

On March 11th the Seattle Seahawks decided to send their 2013 1st round pick along with their 2014 3rd and 7th round picks to the Minnesota Vikings for the right to the sign Harvin to a 6 year, $67 million contract. That's one hell of an investment for a wide receiver who doesn't have the physical stature of a Calvin Johnson or Larry Fitzgerald.

So what is it that has drawn us and the Seahawks to Harvin? First and foremost, is his raw production. In his 4 years with Minnesota he's picked up just over 11 yards a catch, in line with slot receivers such as Wes Welker. But beyond that, Harvin has the kind of versatility that makes him a nightmare to opposition defenses. Percy Harvin doesn't just have 280 receptions in his 4 years, but also 107 carries and 114 kick returns. All these touches have resulted in just under 4,000 yards and 24 touchdowns (from scrimmage) along with a 27.9 yards per kick return and another 5 special teams touchdowns.

So he offers production on offense as well as special teams. Though 4,000 yards in 4 years isn't a spectacular total for a top of the line wide receiver. To explain that, you have to look at his injury history. Harvin has out-right missed 10 regular season games of a possible 64, and been listed on the injury report a massive THIRTY times (excluding playoffs) with reasons as varied as illness, ribs, hamstring and ankle. That's not to bring up his chronic migrane issues that have plagued him since his time with the Florida Gators.

The investment the Seahawks have made is risky, but the pay off could be extrodinary if he can stay on the field. Harvin can line up outside the numbers or in the slot and give cornerbacks fits, he's comfortable carrying the football as a running back from either the shotgun or under centre and is a power in the return game. Such versatility is a rare, rare thing (unless you're part of the Massachsuetts prison population). With a quarterback like Russell Wilson and an offensive co-ordinator in Darrell Bevell who has a wide knowledge of his particular set of skills and just how best to use them, Harvin looks set to crush his personal bests in 2013 and terrorise the NFL from his new seat in the Hawks Nest. If he can stay on the field that is.... (TD)

63. Kyle Williams, DT, Buffalo Bills (TD = 47, PG = 53, GS = -- )
2012 Ranking: 38

Next up in our countdown is one of the most underrated defensive tackles playing in the NFL right now. Similarly to his team mate who came in at #69 in our countdown, Kyle Williams no doubt suffers from the relative media obscurity that is a result of playing in Buffalo, yet another factor in Williams being oft overlooked is that he is, in a way, a victim of his own talents. Other defensive linemen across the league have carved out roles for themselves at specific positions that has made it easier for them to be entrenched in the minds of those who follow the NFL - think '3-tech' and you think of Suh, McCoy, Atkins; think '3-4 end' and you think of Watt, Justin Smith, and so on. Williams has had no such luxury; since being drafted in the fifth round in 2006, Williams has played in a base 4-3 defense, a base 3-4 defense, a 3-4 defense that played more 4-3 than 3-4, back to a base 4-3, and now in 2013 to a true hybrid defense under Rex Ryan disciple Mike Pettine. In that time, he's played as a 3-tech, a 1-tech, a heads-up nose, and a 3-4 end - and unlike those other defensive linemen earlier, who naturally line up at different alignments during the course of a game, Kyle Williams has played all those positions as his base position during his career, not just limited to exotic sub-packages.

Kyle Williams Sacks Matt Cassel
P: Matthew D. Britt
It speaks to Williams' talent that he has been called on to fill so many roles in so many schemes in his seven years in the league, and has excelled everywhere he has played. Yet, seemingly having his base position changed every year has no doubt hurt his reputation, simply as it's made it harder to measure him against his peers. If he spent his career as a 3-4 nose, for example, he would be held up alongside other similarly undersized nose tackles such as Jay Ratliff, a comparison which would make it clear just how good Williams is; but when you go from comparing him with the Ratliffs and Shaun Codys of the league one season, to four front 1-techniques such as Brandon Mebane the next season, to 3-techniques the season after, it makes it harder for him to build a reputation among those who spend more time watching highlight reels than studying game tape - media and fans alike.

For those who do study game tape, though, Williams' reputation is already established. The reason Williams is so versatile is because he is simply dominant in every position he's been put at. As a 1-tech in 2012, he has not just commanded double teams on every snap, gifting Marcell Dareus one-on-one match ups throughout games, but was able to burst through those double teams to contribute five sacks of his own - only half a sack less than 3-tech Dareus. Previously in his career, he racked up a personal-best 5.5 sacks in 2010 as a nose tackle, while contributing 77 tackles in the run game, an incredibly high number for a position that will almost always guarantee a double team throughout. Now in 2013, he will undoubtedly be the centerpiece of Mike Pettine's new defensive scheme. As a coach who has worked with and under Rex Ryan his entire professional career, Pettine's defense will no doubt feature a myriad of defensive fronts, exotic blitzes and hybrid trickery; there is little question that he will be able to do so because he knows wherever he asks Williams to line up, Williams will have already played that position at some point during his NFL career - and dominated while doing so. His unique versatility may have restricted public awareness of just how good this player is, but it's also what makes him just so damn good. (GS)

62. Logan Mankins, LG, New England Patriots (TD = 68, PG = 31, GS = -- )
2012 Ranking: 34

In a ranking of NFL facial hair, Mankins is a solid top 10 pick every year, but on playing ability he finds himself falling to #62 in the TPL100 of 2013. In his first five years in the league after being selected 32nd overall, Mankins didn't miss a start, kicking inside from OT and quickly proving himself to be one of the best mauling guards in the NFL, as well as maintaining his powerful pass pro skills in the face of interior rushers. His durability was also a huge upside, being able to play through minor knocks and avoiding major ones, at one of the most punishing positions on the field. However, in the past 4 years Mankins has missed a total of 14 regular season games for a variety of reasons, including 6 in 2013, and this may well account for Mankins' slide down our rankings and Gur's decision to not place him at all.

That said, 2011 showed Mankins for the ballsy guy that he is. After holding out in 2010 and missing seven games, he tore his ACL during week 1 of the 2011 season and played on. Not just for the rest of the game, or until the bye week for a rest, Mankins played on til week 16, only missing the final regular season game prior to the Patriots playoff push. He didn't even miss a practice. Then, in the Divisional Round of the 2011 playoffs he tore his MCL in his other knee, and still he didn't stop. Mankins started Super Bowl XLVI against the Giants with two torn knee ligaments. Ridiculous. In true lineman style, Mankins had a simple solution to get him through games: "put a brace on, tape aspirin to it, and go."

But with all the abuse his body has taken, 2012 was a breaking point. Hip, ankle and calf injuries caused Mankins to miss 6 games in three separate spells, including the Patriots vs Rams game at Wembley, London, much to the disappointment of us at TPL Towers!

At 31, with his body seemingly starting to rebel against the carnage he's put it through, there is a chance that injury disruptions are the future for Mankins rather than just a blip on his record. Even so, Mankins has made the Pro Bowl and All-Pro teams in each of the last three, disrupted seasons, so maybe the difference he makes when he's on the field is big enough to make up for increasing number of games he's forced to miss? (PG)

61. Elvis Dumervil, DE/OLB, Baltimore Ravens (TD = --, PG = 45, GS = 53)
2012 Ranking: 81

Elvis Dumervil has 63.5 career sacks, with 20.5 of those coming in the last 2 years. And yet, thanks to a clerical error, he finds himself on a new team in 2013.

Denver found themselves hard pressed for cap space this off-season, so wanted to renegotiate Dumervil's deal, but thanks to his agent failing to fax (yes, fax!) the new contract through in time he ended up on the open market, where the defending Super Bowl champs scooped him up on a 5 year, $35million deal that gives them some serious fire power off the edge.

Dumervil has spent his career mostly as a 4-3 defensive end, but his best season came in 2009, when as a stand-up 3-4 OLB he piled up 17 sacks and earned his only 1st team All-Pro place. With the Ravens, Dumervil will be asked to move between both positions as what was a consistent 3-4 defense has become more of a hybrid front.

While Dumervil was an every-down player at the Broncos, with Terrell Suggs, Courtney Upshaw and Sergio Kindle already ensconced in Baltimore, Dumervil might find himself sitting on the bench more often than he would like. Not having Von Miller opposite him, as well as facing a much higher calibre of left tackles inside his new division, could also lead to his sack totals coming down.

But when it comes to getting consistent pressure on opposing QB's there aren't many better than Dumervil. If Suggs can't get his speed back then the Ravens will have to start leaning on Dumervil to be "the" guy, something he's more than capable of doing. (TD)

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