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Tuesday, 18 June 2013

TPL100 2013: 80-71

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

Twenty down, just eighty to go in this year's TPL100 rankings! We've already seen a plethora of rookies, but only 3 offensive lineman (what's wrong with us...!?). Here's hoping we redress the balance with players 80-71 below.

Remember to keeping checking back daily as we reveal one player per day in a countdown to the start of the 2013 NFL season, and then shout at us if you think we've taken our eye off the ball with one of our nominations! Hit us up in the comments below, on twitter @PullingLinemen, or on Facebook.

80. Daryl Washington, ILB, Arizona Cardinals (TD = 56, PG = --, GS = 77)
2012 Ranking: --

P:  Mark Runyon | Football Schedule
Washington is an outstanding talent an linebacker, and undoubtedly a core piece of the Cardinals D that they will wish to build around for the next 5-7 years. Unfortunately for them, he's also got an eye for getting in trouble. The 2012 season was very kind to Washington; he started all 16 games for the first time in his career, recording personal record highs in tackles (134), sacks (9.0), and forced fumbles (2), and getting him voted to the second team All-Pro and an alternate to the Pro Bowl. Soon after, Washington started letting things slip. In April it was announced that he'll miss 4 games at the beginning of 2013 for violating the NFL substance abuse policy, a length of suspension that normally equates to a PED abuse. Just a month later he was arrested for allegedly assaulting his former girlfriend and breaking her collarbone.

Washington's talent is undeniable, and he is deserving of the 56th and 77th ranks that my TPL partners have given him, but much as I did with Brian Cushing in our rankings last year, I personally penalised Washington for his off-the-field issues, particularly the PED abuse, because to me that reduces his value as a player and tarnishes his career. If he can get back on the straight and narrow, Washington will likely go to 5+ more Pro Bowls in his career, and has the chance to be considered amongst the best in the NFL. But only if he can play 16 games a season. (PG)

79. John Sullivan, C, Minnesota Vikings (TD = --, PG = 97, GS = 36)
2012 Ranking: --

It's not always easy to quantify offensive linemen, given the lack of statistics for the position - though, of course, there is one OL stat that should be familiar to our readers by now - but a bit of qualitative exploration (or in simpler terms, "looking at the tape") reveals that in his fifth season, John Sullivan had become one of the best centers in the NFL. A late round draft pick out of Notre Dame, Sullivan took over the starting gig during 2009, snapping to one of the greatest in Brett Favre. Every season since, Sullivan has improved in every aspect of the game, becoming more solid in pass defense, more aggressive in run blocking, and despite being a younger lineman - he'll be only 28 heading into this season - he's been a rock to Christian Ponder, not just physically as a protector but by taking control of the protection calls and "Mike" identifications to ease the burden on his quarterback.

Vikings v Green Bay -DSC_1426- 12:30:12
P: Joe Bielawa
Of course, you can't really talk about the Minnesota O-line and not bring up the guy in the #28 shirt. All Day had an All-Universe season in 2012, coming off surgery to repair a torn ACL and MCL with just a nine-month turnaround to finish just nine yards short of the all-time single-season rushing record. No doubt Adrian Peterson would have had a phenomenal season no matter who was in front of him, but having a center of Sullivan's undeniable caliber surely helped - a fact clearly not lost on offensive co-ordinator Bill Musgrave, as a whopping 62% of runs by the Vikings as a whole last year, 10% higher than the league average, was run up the A-gaps, the fifth highest proportion of up-the-gut runs in the league. No offensive co-ordinator, especially not one on a playoff team, calls for so many runs up the middle without having absolute confidence in their center - and with as outstanding a player as Sullivan snapping the ball, the only surprise here is that the ball wasn't run behind him even more often. To quote m'colleague Phil, in his article looking at teams' OLR scores over the course of the 2012 season - in which the Vikings came fourth -  "Sully has been UN-BE-LIEVABLE in the running game this season, and has been THE difference maker"Voted to the Pro Football Writers Association's All-Pro first team for 2012 - although criminally neglected by the Associated Press's version of the award - this is one center who deserves far more recognition than he's gotten so far, and if people focused a little less on stats and a little more on gametape this upcoming season, Sullivan's name will be one that is lauded across all quarters of NFL media and fandom alike. (GS)

78. Cam Newton, QB, Carolina Panthers (TD = 46, PG = 85, GS = --)
2012 Ranking: --

P: Wikimedia Commons
After his impressive rookie season there were many saying that Cam Newton would regress. That the league would catch up to his unique brand of football and the college-NFL hybrid offense the Panthers had put in place for him.

And to a certain extent that was what happened. Early games were far from spectacular for Newton, he had 2 multi-interception games in the first 5 weeks of the season, and 2 games where he failed to break a 60 QB rating, while one of his 2 impressive games came against the epically awful Saints defense. Hardly a stellar follow up to his award-winning and record-breaking rookie season.

It wasn't until November that Cam really came to the boil. He got the best of Robert Griffin in Washington, and after being unable to keep pace with Peyton Manning closed out the season with a 5-2 record, throwing 11 TD's to just 2 interceptions, completing 58.4% of his passes and rushing for over 6 yards a carry and picking up 4 more TD's on the ground.

By the end of the season Newton's numbers showed improvements in interceptions, yards per pass attempt and yards per rush attempt. Not only that but he continued to be the most exciting QB, perhaps player, for a neutral supporter in NFL to watch.

There are of course still some issues with Cam's game, he's taken a whopping 71 sacks in his 2 seasons in the NFL, and fumbled 15 times (10 of which were in 2012). But he also lacks the weaponry to really excel. His best, and only, wide receiver Steve Smith just turned 34 and while Greg Olsen is a good option at tight end he's not really the ideal number 2 target. The investments made in the backfield have handcuffed the Panthers when it's come to getting Newton more help on the outside, they've been waiting for Brandon LaFell to turn into a consistent threat, and it looks like he'll get at least one more year to do so after a defense-heavy draft this year. If LaFell can get open more consistently and perhaps start to even out the coverage on Smith we should see Newton's passing numbers take off. With former QB coach Mike Shula now taking over the reigns as offensive co-ordinator in part thanks to a good relationship with Newton, we'll hopefully see the performances become more consistent, and the results match the level of entertainment that Newton brings to the field every sunday. (TD)

77. Mario Williams, DE, Buffalo Bills (TD = 88, PG = 43, GS = --)
2012 Ranking: 22

P: Wikimedia Common
From #22 to #77, the fall for Mario Williams in one of the biggest amongst our rankings between 2012 and now. But why? For a guy who joined a new team and put up his first 10+ sack season since 2008, it seems a little harsh to rank him down at 77, but he's hurt by the fact that the Bills D was horrid overall, particularly against the run. They conceded the 7th most points, 4th most 1st downs, the 2nd most rushing yards, and a league high 23 rushing TDs. Was this all Mario's fault? Of course not, but numbers like those certainly tarnish his shine.

Williams arrived in Buffalo with dollar bills flying. His 6-year, $100million contract made him the highest paid defensive player in the league in March 2012, and came with a lot of criticism that money was his only motivator to move to the Bills when he had other seemingly more play-off ready suitors. However, alongside the likes of Marcell Dareus and Kyle Williams, the Bills DL looked ready to dominate in 2012 with the addition of Williams, and the coaching staff put all their eggs in that basket. It didn't work.

6 wins wasn't enough for Buffalo, and saw the coaching staff sacked, the starting QB shipped off, and rebuilding mode initiated. The $100million gamble on Williams was not the success everyone hoped it would be, and unless his performance in 2013 lives up to the huge amount of money he's earning every week, he'll likely slide down our rankings again. (PG)

76. Jake Long, LT, St. Louis Rams (TD = 99, PG = 68, GS = --)
2012 Ranking: 29

At 76 is another big faller in our rankings. Long was the 1st overall selection in 2008 for Miami, but signed a 4 year, $34 million free agent contract with St. Louis this off-season, quite the step down from his 5 year, $57.75 million rookie deal which made him the highest paid offensive linemen in the NFL before he ever played a down.

For most of Long's career with the Dolphins he actually managed to play up to that massive contract, quickly becoming one of the best blind-side blockers in football. So why is it that Miami weren't keen to re-sign him? And that the Rams could get him for less guaranteed money than the Bears gave Jermon Bushrod ($16m for Long compared to around $22.5m for Bushrod)?

Well it all begins with health. Long's missed 6 games in the last 2 years with a variety of upper body injuries that have sapped some of his monstrous power while niggling back issues have reduced his ability to cope with outside speed. That's not to say Long can't be the 1st team All-Pro tackle that he was in his pomp. There were times in 2012 when he would dominate his edge, but the consistency just hasn't been there recently. And it bares remembering that while Miami saw a declining player, St. Louis  saw a guy  who's 2012 form was an upgrade over what the Rams have been rolling out at left tackle ever since Orlando Pace left town. If St. Louis can get a healthy Jake Long in 2013 then they'll undoubtedly have the bargain of this year's free agency and he'll shoot back up our rankings.

However, he does now have to compete with the monsters that reside out west after years of dealing with the relatively tame defenses of the AFC east. How will he cope with The Smiths, Chris Clemons and Calais Campbell? Let's just say Sam Bradford has his fingers crossed. (TD)

75. Henry Melton, DT, Chicago Bears (TD = 71, PG = 58, GS = --)
2012 Ranking: --

In the entry for our 81st-ranked player, Lance Briggs, we talked extensively about how Lovie Smith brought the Tampa Two to Chicago. In Briggs, Smith had a player to man one of the key positions in that vaunted defensive scheme, that of weakside linebacker, but the one position that above all is engine that the Tampa Two simply does not work without: the three-technique defensive tackle. He found his three-tech in Henry Melton.

After spending his rookie season as a part-time player in nickel and sub packages, Melton became the starting three-tech in 2011, and he took advantage of the opportunity (and favourable blocking assignments due to the attention that Julius Peppers demanded) to rack up seven sacks, the second-highest total number for a defensive tackle that season. Last season, the third-year tackle's sack numbers went down to six, and his only multi-sack game came in Week 1, but Melton showed signs of becoming a more complete football payer in 2012, growing from a pass-rusher to a tackle who could play equally as solidly against the run, almost doubling the number of tackles he amassed between his first and second years as a starter. Remember too that sack totals always only tells part of the story, and that is especially true in the Tampa Two. Melton may only have had six sacks, and only a single sack in the latter half of the season, but the effects of his play show themselves in other statistics - Chicago finished eighth in team sacks, as it was Melton who became the player offenses began accounting for rather than Peppers; the Bears led the league in turnovers and interceptions, often a direct result of quarterbacks being forced into errant throws by the relentless pressure coming from Melton; the team gave up the fifth fewest yards per play in the league, and a huge part of that was Melton's significant improvement against the run to match his already-established pass-rushing skills.

Yet, the future holds questions for Melton. Coming off his first Pro Bowl berth, Henry Melton is currently under the franchise tag, and with only a few weeks left before the deadline to sign tagged players to long-term contracts, there's a real possibility Melton will be playing under a one-year deal in 2013 - and contract situations have been known to be distractions in the past. More significantly, there's a new coaching staff in place at the Midway, and though new co-ordinator Mel Tucker has said there won't be any significant changes to the defensive scheme, Melton has been playing under two of the original Tampa Two coaches, Smith and defensive co-ordinator Rod Marinelli, who served as linebacker and defensive line coach respectively under the scheme's architects, Tony Dungy and Monte Kiffin. How will playing in the Tampa Two run by a coach from a different coaching philosophy effect Melton? He will also have to deal with being even more strongly planned-against by offensive co-ordinators as Julius Peppers' age begins to show itself more and more. For sure, the future is bright for Melton, but with his sack numbers declining as offensive lines began paying him more attention of the duration of the season, the future is not yet certain. Almost sure to face doubleteams as often as schemes allow next season, 2013 will show whether Melton is among the game's upper echelon of defensive tackles, or has merely been the beneficiary of playing alongside one of the game's best defensive ends in recent memory. Time will tell. (GS)

74. Joe Flacco, QB, Baltimore Ravens (TD = 96, PG = 82, GS = 73)
2012 Ranking: --

P: Keith Allison
Joe Flacco, Super Bowl winning QB. How many people out there genuinely thought that would happen when he first joined the league in 2008? Now be honest. Didn't think so.

No matter how you look at it, Joe Flacco has had an excellent first 5 seasons in the NFL. With an admittedly very strong supporting cast in Baltimore, Flacco has helped guide the Ravens to the playoffs every single year, and after becoming the first rookie QB in history to win two playoff games, he has won at least one playoff game in each subsequent season, something his draft classmates of Matt Ryan, Matt Flynn and Chad Henne could only dream of (it took Ryan 4 attempts to get his first win).

2012, however, was Flacco's coming of age. His regular season was decent but not explosive, with a career high 3,817 yards ranking him just 14th in the NFL, and 22 passing TDs vs 10 INTs, with 3 further TDs added on the ground. In the post-season, he went off. 1,140 yards, 11 TDs, 0 INTs, and a QB rating of 117.2. This included his Super Bowl XLVII performance of 22-of-33 for 287yards, 3 TDs, and a rating of 124.2. In the biggest game of an NFL QBs career, Flacco put in an MVPs performance (as well as volunteering as an unconventional special teams coach) and earned his shiny new ring, plus a huge $120million contract extension.

Is he an "elite" QB? No, because there are still a number of QBs you'd back to be able to beat him in a balanced contest 1-on-1, but Flacco has proven he is a game-winner who can handle the biggest pressure and perform in any circumstance. (PG)

73. Torrey Smith, WR, Baltimore Ravens (TD = --, PG = 64, GS = 62)
2012 Ranking: --

Coming in just ahead of the Baltimore QB is his favourite target, the speedster Torrey Smith.

Taken in the 2nd round out of Maryland, Smith has spent just 2 seasons in the NFL and caught only 99 regular season passes despite playing in every game. That is part of the reason why he missed out on my own top 100, a return of 3 catches a game makes it very hard to crack the elite group. However, what Smith can do with those catches, and his influence even when not targeted, is rare indeed.

Smith's 4.41 40 yard dash time showed his speed, but his ability to utilize that speed on the football field is what's made him so lethal when combined with Joe Flacco's cannon of a right arm. Smith has averaged 17.1 yards per reception in the NFL, it's only a small sample size but that's close to prime Randy Moss-levels of production. And when he's not getting the ball Smith's presence alone is enough to back safeties up and open up space for others to work in.

Torrey Smith's 2012 campaign ended in triumph, but it started badly both on and off the field. Smith snagged just 4 catchs in the first 2 games and then lost his brother in the small hours of sunday 23rd September, the same day Smith's Ravens were due to host New England in a prime-time rematch of the 2011 AFC Championship Game.

Head Coach John Harbaugh left the decision to play up to Smith. The receiver decided to suit up and ended up having the game of his life; 6 catches, 127 yards and 2 crucial touchdowns. Smith tormented the Patriots defense all night, drawing multiple defensive pass interference calls (albeit from the Replacement Refs) and was a huge reason for the 31-30 win that day. It was the kind of performance that is impossible to over-state and shows his character and strength.

That game pushed Smith into the NFL spotlight. And while it drifted away from him at times his playoff game in Denver, where the Broncos decided to let our #100 player Champ Bailey take him on 1-on-1, bought it firmly back on him. Bailey had no answer for Smith's speed, his 2 touchdowns kept Baltimore in range for the "miracle" play at the end. He became the focal point for both New England and San Francisco defenses in the subsequent games and as a result allowed Anquan Boldin, Dennis Pitta and Joe Flacco to shine.

Torrey Smith is far from the complete wide receiver, but it would be unfair to call him just a deep threat too. If he can work on the more subtle aspects of the position (working in and out of breaks in particular) he can become as fearsome as any wide out in the game today. (TD)

72. Nick Mangold, C, New York Jets (TD = 43, PG = 74, GS = --)
2012 Ranking: 36

P: Anthony Quintano
Our 36th-ranked player in 2012 drops 36 places in this year's list. Nick Mangold has been the figurative and literal anchor of the Jets' offensive line since starting his very first game as a first-round rookie in 2006; he's missed just two games in the subsequent seven seasons, starting every game he's ever been active for. So why has Mangold fallen this year?

Simply put, Mangold may be the anchor of the Jet O-line, but it's simply not been a very good line he's been anchoring. As an individual, his play had been good in 2012, but not reaching the stellar heights it once did, a fact the statistics bear out: the Jets' run game averaged a paltry 3.8 yards a carry - 6th worst in the league - and when 64% of running plays in 2012 go through the middle, the center needs to bear some responsibility. In fact, according to Football Outsiders, the Jets ranked just 24th in the NFL when it came to yardage in the second level - and the center is typically the player who will most often be responsible for getting to the linebackers. As pedestrian as the run blocking was for the Jets, pass protection was even worse, with Gang Green's line giving up the sixth most sacks in the NFL - but when looked at on a sacks-per-pass percentage, the Jets actually tied the atrocious Cardinals offensive line for the most sacks given up.

Yet despite the mediocrity surrounding Mangold on the offensive line, the uselessness of Sanchez as a quarterback and the clear lack of consistent talent in the running back corp, he still remains one of the best centers in the league, and more than deserves a place in the TPL100; but one man can only do so much, and without help around him, Mangold's play is undeniably negatively effected by the team's situation. Without solid guards, Mangold is unable to release to the second level, instead having to stay longer on double teams on interior DL; without a running back who's able to make yardage on his own, the running statistics naturally take a huge hit when teams are able to overload against the run knowing that there is no significant aerial threat, nor a running back able to take advantage of the holes opened up by stacking against the run; without a quarterback who can play a damn, the ball will get held on longer than necessary, inflating the sack numbers. Nick Mangold is still a stellar offensive lineman; but having to cover for the absence of talent around him often left the centre in 2013 too occupied with the responsibilities of others left unexecuted to be able to do what he does best - and if the situation isn't remedied soon, one of the best lineman in the league may never achieve the heights he once did, simply because he has to do far too much on his own. Still, while dark clouds hover over Mangold, he can take solace in one fact - at least his ass never de-balled his quarterback on national television.

71. Jason Pierre-Paul, DE, New York Giants (TD = 94, PG = 88, GS = 63)
2012 Ranking: 27

P: Mike Morbeck
It's so difficult to place JPP in the hierarchy of NFL pass rushers because of the three very different seasons he's produced. He showed promise in 2010, earning 4.5 sacks in 16 games and giving Giants fans a little insight into what he might be capable of what he's capable of was 2011. Given extra field time thanks to injuries to Justin Tuck and Osi Umenyiora, JPP recorded 16.5 regular season sacks and his first career safety, as well as blocking a final second field goal against the Cowboys that gave the Giants a 37-34 victory. He helped not only get the Giants into the playoffs, but played a big part in pushing them through, all the way to Super Bowl XLVI and the eventual  21-17 win over the Patriots. After this outstanding year which instantly propelled him to "elite pass rusher" status in many people's minds, and 27th in the TPL100 of 2012, the world was at his feet.

2012 was a different story, and at the time it seemed pretty mysterious why. He played in all 16 games, but managed just 6.5 sacks, and only 43 total tackles. A down-year by most pass rushers standards, let alone compared to the lofty expectations that were set for him. But in the past month the reasons for his downturn have become more clear. On June 3rd 2013 JPP went under the knife to remove a herniated disc in his back, an injury that trouble him for much of the 2012 season and undoubtedly hindered his explosiveness and bend off the edge. The prognosis is good for Pierre-Paul, with the surgery going well and his expected time-out reaching 12 weeks, he may be back in time for the Giants' week 1 opener against the Cowboys. But even if he misses that, and even one or two more games, the 2011 JPP that can average more than a sack a game is definitely worth waiting for for NYG. (PG)

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