We are The Pulling Linemen: dedicated to bringing you stories and opinions from the guys at the centre of football - Linemen!

Contact us at info@pullinglinemen.com, or on twitter @PullingLinemen

Saturday, 27 July 2013

TPL100 2013: 40 - 31

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

Training camps are open around America, key injuries are already happening and suspensions have been handed out. It can only mean one thing... Football season is upon us!
The annual Hall of Fame game is just over a week away, HBO's "Hard Knocks" crew are gearing up to give us another behind the scenes look at the Cincinnati Bengals and we here at TPL are planning out our pre-season coverage and picks.
But during all that we will continue with our countdown of the best players in 2013, with the number 1 player being revealed on opening day.
Here you can see players 40 to 31, with the links to everyone else above. Sit back and enjoy!

40. Vernon Davis, TE, San Francisco 49ers (TD = 40, PG = 60, GS = 37)
2012 Ranking: 43

P: John Martinez Pavilga
When San Francisco took Vernon Davis 6th overall in 2006 people were surprised. Not because Vernon Davis wasn't talented, but because really, who takes a tight end 6th overall??

The initial return from Davis wasn't great either. He topped 50 receptions just once in his first 3 seasons and averaged 11 yards a catch and just 28.3 yards a game. Hardly the production one expects to find at the top of the draft. And it wasn't just the raw stats that were disappointing, but the overall effort levels of Davis that had many labelling the obviously talented player a bust.

Mid-2008 Mike Singletary took over as head coach, his first coaching position in the NFL. And his first controversial act as head coach was benching Vernon Davis mid-game for putting himself above the team. Singletary lasted just 40 games in San Fran, and his reign could hardly be called successful (18-22 record), but he laid the foundations for the 49ers team we enjoy today. From drafting the likes of Mike Iupati to putting a rocket up Davis' arse and, in his words, helping him become the player he is today.

That player, from 2009 onwards, hasn't missed a game and has averaged 60 catches, 805 yards and 8 touchdowns a season, which given the shoddy QB play he's dealt with is remarkable. Davis has been a crucial part of the 49ers return to, and success in, the playoffs. In 2011 it was 7 catches, 180 yards and 2 remarkable touchdowns in their unlikely upset of the New Orleans Saints. This season it was 100 yard games in their successful come back against Atlanta in the NFC Championship game and another 100 in the oh-so-nearly comeback against the Ravens in the Superbowl.

With the protective rules now in place that stop linebackers and safeties punishing receivers over the middle we've seen tight ends become more and more prevalent in the elite passing acttacks around the NFL. With Colin Kaepernick now calling the shots under centre we should see Davis' numbers increase towards those of the other special athletes at tight end. It's not a guarantee though, since during the regular season Davis caught just 12 balls from his new QB in 7 games, but their post-season success together should mean more footballs come 85's way in 2013. (TD)

39. Aldon Smith, LB, San Francisco 49ers (TD = 82, PG = 28, GS = 22)
2012 Ranking: --

Self-confidence, often to the verge of cockiness, is not a rare thing among NFL players; nor is it necessarily a bad thing, as long as they can back up their play can back up their words. It's that level of self-confidence that allows players to excel; no-one ever became an elite player by being unsure whether or not they can execute their assignments against other elite players. Still, such self-confidence, especially when boosted by initial success, can lead to claims that are ludicrous and laughable - see: Johnson, Chris, 2,500 yard season (and neither are coaches immune from this - see: Ryan, Rex, Super Bowl guarantee). When a young, confident player claims that he could set a new single-season sack record of thirty, you'd be forgiven for dismissing or ignoring the claim. Then again, when that claim is being made someone who's career trajectory so far is on track to surpass the great Reggie White's, it might be time to pay some attention.

P: Au Kirk
Aldon Smith is not yet a complete player. Though he's consistently improving as a run defender, he's still got a ways to go - after all, he's only one season removed from a rookie campaign where the 49ers so little trusted him against the run, he didn't start a single game in 2011, being deployed as little more than a third-down pass rush specialist in the rotation. His 2012 offseason showed Smith as an individual who made poor decisions off the field, from being arrested for a DUI less than a week after his final game of the post-season, to hanging out in situations that resulted in him being stabbed at a house party; his 2013 offseason has mostly been centered around rehabbing from shoulder surgery after tearing a labrum during the 2012 season - an injury that saw him go his final six games of the year (including the post season) without a single sack. Is this the profile or someone who could put up 30 sacks in a single season?

Perhaps not - but it's hard to argue there's an NFL player who'd have a better chance of hitting such a lofty target. Despite being only a rotational player as a rookie, he still managed to notch up an impressive 14 sacks - a team rookie record. In 2012 he followed that up with the single-season sack record for the 49ers with 19.5 sacks. Those 33.5 sacks in his first two years are the most sacks any NFL player has ever had in his first two years - including Reggie White. More impressively for Smith, he didn't just beat White's record for the fastest player to reach 30 sacks, he smashed it, notching career sack no. 30 in career game no. 27 - a full four games sooner than it took White to reach that record. In case he wasn't done breaking records in 2012, you can throw in his 5.5 sacks against the Chicago Bears on Monday Night Football, the most sacks ever seen by a single player on a Monday Night Football game. He was ultimately pipped at the post for the title of sack leader last year by J.J. Watt, but after Week 13, where a two-sack effort against Miami marked the last time Smith downed a quarterback all year, ostensibly because of that torn labrum, Smith was three sacks clear of Watt, and if we assume the lack of sacks was a result of his injury, then at the rate he was going pre-labrum tear, Aldon Smith would have finished with 2012 with 24 sacks, a number that would have surpassed the previous single-season sack record by a sack and a half.

Yet praise for Aldon Smith is not universally forthcoming in the most gushing of tones - as clearly demonstrated by the disparity in Toby's ranking of Smith compared to the other two ballots. The reasons for this could be multiple; he still has yet more improvements to make in his run defense; though he is considered full-go for training camp, he is still coming off surgery to repair that labrum which snuffed out a pass-rushing campaign for the ages; perhaps more importantly, Justin Smith, who, playing in front of Aldon, has done such an incredible job of tying up blockers and giving the younger Smith room to operate, is coming off his own offseason surgery for a triceps injury that kept him out of two games - if the elder Smith misses more time in 2013 (at 34, he's hardly a spring chicken), there's no guarantee whatsoever the person covering for him will be able to do nearly as good a job of keeping blockers off of Aldon. These criticisms and concerns are all very much valid - and in particular, unless he keeps improving in the run game, he may never be considered in the same breath of awe and reverence as the other defenders in whose company his gaudy sack numbers place him. Yet, as a pure pass-rusher, there simply has never been a player in the history of the NFL who has done so much in so short a time frame (we'll leave discussions about the validity of these numbers achieved in a much more pass-heavy era to another day). He's already chased down some of Reggie White's most impressive records - and now he's chasing down a seemingly ludicrous thirty sacks in a single season. The most ludicrous thing of all? He may well chase that one down, too. (GS)

38. Charles Tillman, CB, Chicago Bears (TD = 73, PG = 16, GS = 41)
2012 Ranking: --

P: The U.S. Army
It's fair to say that Charles Tillman has benefited from a big one-year stats bump to find his way to #38 in our rankings. He's always been a good corner; since arriving in Chicago in 2003 he's been a starter, and over the 10 years of his career Tillman's consistently shown he can cover #1 receivers 1-on-1, can ballhawk to make key interceptions, and has the awareness to turn picks into long returns - he joint led the league in 2012 with 3 INT return TDs.

He's also a fierce tackler, a skill where sometime even the best DBs fall short of true greatness, and never was this more evident than in 2012. 10 forced fumbles, 4 of which came in one game vs the Tennessee Titans, speaks volumes of not only his willingness to drop his shoulders and lay out a ball-carrier, but also the genuine skill with which he does it, targeting the ball at all times giving himself the best shot to force the turnover.

At 32, and with Brian Urlacher gone, Tillman must step up as a true leader of the Bears D in 2013 if he wants to get into the post-season again before hanging up his cleats. Whilst his eye-popping numbers are likely to fall off again this season, he'll be integral to the Bears success, and I wouldn't want to be the one to tell him to his face he can't repeat his 2012 performance... (PG)

37. Clay Matthews, OLB, Green Bay Packers (TD = 34, PG = 13, GS = 82)
2012 Ranking: 30

P: Mike Morbeck
Despite the Claymaker's sack total bouncing back to impressive levels after a disappointing 2011 campaign, he slides 7 places in our rankings this year to 37.

Matthews' 2012 campaign is an intriguing one when you look a little deeper. The move over to the right outside linebacker position kept him from being as involved in the run game as he used to be, and his total QB pressures were lower than they were in 2011 (70 down to 56 per Pro Football Focus). But he was able to rack up the sacks at more than 1 per game (13 in his 12 games played, 16 in 14 including playoffs). So while facing left tackles on a more consistent basis in 2012 hurt Matthews' consistency, rushing from the blind side allowed him to have more of an impact overall.

One think I like to look at with pass rushers is game to game consistency and who they've been playing. Have pass rushers just grown fat on poor offensive lines? Have they disappeared completely against good opposition, or worse against poor ones? Matthews' 2012 game log is pleasant reading. He was sackless in just 3 games; week 3 against underrated Russell Okung and the evasive Russell Wilson, week 6 against the excellent Duane Brown and then in week 9 against Arizona when he got injured. Yes, Matthews did boost his numbers against poor opposition, getting 5.5 sacks in his 2 games against Chicago, but that's balanced by picking up 3.5 sacks against Joe Staley in 2 games.

Not only did Matthews have more success in hunting down QB's in 2012 against stiffer blocking, but it was done without ANY help. His rush partners were the terrible Erik Walden and rookie Nick Perry who combined for 5 sacks over the season. He got little help inside either, so to convert pressures into sacks at such a high rate is really a remarkable feat, and one that is likely to fall back to earth in 2013 unless Green Bay can find a way to get him some more help.

But the thing that separates Clay Matthews from other pass rushers like Aldon Smith is his overall game. Matthews is fantastic in run support and more than capable in coverage when the Packers choose to drop him back. He's shown now that he can be effective from either side of the defense and can blitz up the middle as well. He's the complete package, and at 27 he's right in the middle of his peak performance years. A scary thought for all NFL Quarterbacks. (TD)

36. Cameron Wake, DE, Miami Dolphins (TD = 39, PG = 44, GS = 34)
2012 Ranking: 71

Ordinarily, the Canadian Football League, to be frank, is where football players go when they fail to make it in the NFL but refuse to accept the stark truth that their dreams of making it playing professional football are, in the main, dead. Very occasionally, a player from the CFL is able to break into its American cousin, giving hopes to those chasing down a Grey Cup that one day they might be chasing down a Lombardi Trophy instead. The odds of a CFL player getting a roster spot on an NFL team are very low indeed - and the odds of that player making an impact in the NFL are lower still. Historically, even on those few occasions when a player is able to make such a transition and having such an impact has typically been restricted to those on the offensive side of the ball, and particularly quarterbacks - Warren Moon, Joe Theismann and Doug Flutie are probably the most notable names to have played on both sides of the border (with apologies to Jeff Garcia). A defensive player making the same transition is nigh-on unheard of - or at least, was unheard of... until Cameron Wake arrived in Miami.

Cameron Wake
P: Wikimedia Commons
A defensive end/linebacker tweener at Penn State, Wake went undrafted in 2005 and barely lasting a few months with the Giants before being cut in the run up to training camp. After a year out of football, Wake signed with the British Columbia Lions, and put together two of the greatest seasons a defensive player has ever had in the CFL, notching up 39 sacks over his two years in the league, being named the league's defensive player of the league on both occasions and being named to the CFL's all-2000 team, just based on the production of those two years. Signing with the Dolphins in 2009, Wake spent that year mostly as a rotational pass-rusher as he adjusted from being a full time defensive end in Canada to a full time outside linebacker in the NFL. The next season, Wake became a full time starter, and responded with a 14-sack season and a Pro Bowl berth, as well as a spot on the All-Pro second team; he followed that up with a somewhat more mediocre 8.5-sack campaign, the final year the Dolphins ran a 3-4 defense. Last season, Wake returned to the defensive end position he had caused so much chaos from in the CFL, a move that saw him put up 15 sacks, earn his second trip to Miami, and, more importantly, his first outing with the All-Pro first team.

So, what will 2013 bring for Wake? Obviously, we predict big things for him, hence his 35-spot climb in this year's TPL100. Perhaps the biggest boost to Wake's play this season will come from the team's first round draft pick, Dion Jordan, a player Miami traded up nine spots to make sure they signed. With Jordan, the first defensive player taken in this year's draft, bookending that defensive line, opposing teams will be forced to stretch their protection schemes to breaking point to account for both ends - a situation the wily Wake has both the skill and experience to fully take advantage of. The team's other big defensive acquisition, Dannel Ellerbe, should likewise provide a huge upgrade to the team's defense, as the linebacker groomed to be Ray Lewis' replacement in Baltimore (though, luckily for Miami, Joe Flacco's contract scuppered those plans) brings an upgrade from Karlos Dansby both against the run and in coverage, which should mean Wake has plenty more opportunities this season to just pin his ears back and chase down opposing passers. Likewise, the expected development of Ryan Tannehill, combined with the more pass-happy offense that many have taken the signing of Mike Wallace to indicate, should mean that opposing teams will have to play more 'catch-up' in games - again, leading to more passing situations for Wake to salivate over. He may not be the first player you think of when you think of the league's best pass-rushers, mostly since between the Patriots' easy dominance of the division and the Jets' continued experiment in "football team as farcical entertainment" the Dolphins as a whole are oft overlooked - but make no mistake: Wake has been one of the league's best pass-rushers since 2010, and the conditions are ripe for him to have his best season yet in 2014. (GS)

35. Eli Manning, QB, New York Giants (TD = 29, PG = 48, GS = 40)
2012 Ranking: 15

I guess the real question regarding Eli Manning is whether last year's #15 ranking, or this year's #35 ranking, truly reflect the level of play we see from the youngest of Archie's off-spring. The fact is, last year he benefited from the Super Bowl bump that comes when you beat the Patriots in the biggest game of all for the second time in 5 years, and this year, well he's suffering from the deflation you get after a season that didn't end in the playoffs, despite everyone in your division doing their best to give that top spot away.

In truth, 35 is a pretty fair assessment of the Eli impact. He's proven that he can produce the goods in the toughest of situations, like hitting Mario Manningham on that ridiculous sideline catch on the game-winning drive of Super Bowl XLVI; he's shown that he can produce season-in, season-out, breaking numerous Giants franchise records surpassing greats like Phil Simms, Charlie Conerly and YA Tittle on the way; but he's also shown that he can sometimes be inconsistent, and he's only ever one weak performance away from people questioning him as a top level QB.

"Is Eli an elite QB?" is one of the most common heard questions among the NFL analysts, and honestly there is no consensus, it depends entirely on your definition of elite. If you class elite as a QB with the talent, skill-set and track record to be able to pull out a match, and Super Bowl, winning performance at just about any moment, then Eli's elite. If you'd define it as a great of the game who is amongst the top 3 of their era who'll be discussed as a legend for 40 years after they've retired, well, you decide if he fits that description. I know where I sit, and that's why #35 fits Eli just fine. (PG)

34. Navorro Bowman, ILB, San Francisco 49ers (TD = 27, PG = 46, GS = 44)
2012 Ranking: 51

The biggest debates you get in rankings like this is almost always "How good is Navorro Bowman really?". The shadow that Patrick Willis can cast on the other 49ers linebackers is enormous and very difficult to get out from. But if anyone can, it's Navorro Bowman.

Bowman's athleticism is unreal. His range and closing speed are what you'd expect from a safety, not a 240+lb linebacker. It's this kind of ability in space that means San Francisco can use sub-packages with Bowman on the field and Willis on the bench. Football Outsiders had Bowman on the field for 95% of San Fran's defensive snaps as compared to 93% for Willis. It's not a massive difference, but proof that, in certain circumstances, there times when Bowman is simply a better option than Willis is.

Moving away from comparisons to #52 for a moment, Bowman is the kind of all-round talent that I love to watch and will always get a rankings boost from me. He can blitz, take on lead blockers in the hole and is the best coverage linebacker I've seen for some time. Want to play man coverage? No problem, Bowman can go against the best tight ends and running backs without a problem. He'll even do a number on some slot receivers.

Since winning the starting job next to Willis in 2011 Bowman has averaged a massive 147 tackles and made the 1st team All-Pro both years. He's improved his all-round stats line this year as well, picking up his first career interception and forced fumble in 2012. At just 25 Bowman has a ton of football in front of him, and with Willis suffering a broken hand in training camp recently we might finally get a definitive answer to whether or not Bowman's production is a by-product of Willis, or stand-alone playmaking. My money's on the latter. (TD)

33. Carl Nicks, LG, Tampa Bay Buccaneers (TD = 31, PG = 55, GS = 27)
2012 Ranking: 26

Fifth round picks are generally expected to provide depth and special teams for the NFL, unless they are considered a 'project' player. They are not generally expected to start a majority of their rookie season, let alone go on to start 68 consecutive games. On those rare occasions when a fifth-round pick does start, they're expected to maybe do a decent stop-gap job until a real starter can be brought in. They are not expected to become one of the most dominant players in the league. Yet, for the second year in the row, the top interior offensive lineman in the TPL100 is Carl Nicks.

What makes Nicks so good that we feel prepared to call him the best at his position in back-to-back years? He is, after all, not a player without his faults; he is not the most consistent lineman in the league, with him routinely having a whiff or two a game; he has a tendency to go up to the second level before he's made sure the first-level defender has either been put on his back or has been locked up by a fellow blocker; and, for all that it's absolutely not his fault, it must have been viewed as an enormous disappointment that, after being made the highest-paid guard in the NFL, his season was cut short after just seven games due to turf toe.

P: Wikimedia Commons
Yes, that last point is a bit of a reach, and an unfair criticism to make... but that's the level of straw-grasping you have to get to in order to find fault with Nicks' game. EVERY lineman has at least one or two bad plays in a game - hell, most linemen would give their right arm to commit so few errors (well, obviously not literally, since there haven't been many successful one-armed linemen in the NFL, but you get the point). Going up to the second level prematurely might be the only legitimate criticism of Nicks' game, but even then it's an infrequent enough an occurrence that he still ranks higher than any other interior OL in the league in our eyes - and speaks to the scary truth about Nicks: despite being the best playing the position right now, he could still be better. Like his former team-mate in New Orleans, Jahri Evans, Nicks has no weakness in any particular aspect of his game. His pass-protection is simply faultless. As a straight-ahead road grader, Nicks is almost unmatchable, combining perfect technique with brute strength unmatched by most linemen in the league. His size is fearsome, officially weighing in around 340lbs but reportedly being closer to 380, yet still as agile and quick-of-foot as someone a hundred pounds lighter, allowing him to be deployed as a lead blocker on pulling plays - which he does to devastating effect. Most impressively, the two-time All-Pro is just so damn good that he elevates the players on either side of him by being able to single-handedly account for both 'A' and 'B' gaps simultaneously in pass protection due to his sheer size and strength - heck, Jermon Bushrod was able to build a career out of having to only pay attention to his outside and leaving his inside to Carl Nicks (as the three of us suspect the Bears will find out to their chagrin when they see what Bushrod is like without a guard of a Nicks or even Grubbs quality inside of him). So how can Nicks be better? Only by being more consistent and sound in checking his release to the second level, and to keep working on his consistency - there are just one or two plays a game that Nicks gets beaten on, not because the opposing defensive tackle is better than Nicks but due to a mistake on his own part. The former is a matter of greater chemistry with his teammates, and a second season with the Bucs should see a stronger level of understanding between Nicks and Tampa Bay center Jeremy Zuttah - a key component in all successful combo blocks between linemen. The latter, the mistakes on Nicks' own end, might be something that will happen to every lineman from time to time, but there's no question to my mind that Nicks can sharpen up to iron those incidents almost entirely out of his game - unlike other positions in football, linemen get better as they approach the big 3-0, and Carl Nicks is 28 entering the 2013 season. As he continues to get better year on year, there's little doubt that Nicks can easily get iron out the occasional mental lapse in order to truly make flawless his otherwise perfect game. When the best interior offensive lineman in the NFL has room to improve, you've got to wonder how long it'll be before the conversation moves from discussing his status among his contemporaneous peers, to discussing his status among the greatest to have ever played in the trenches. (GS)

32. Matt Ryan, QB, Atlanta Falcons (TD = 33, PG = 27, GS = 52)
2012 Ranking: -- 

P: Mark Runyon | Football Schedule
5 years, $103.75 million. That is the magnitude of the contract extension Matt Ryan signed at the end of July, making him the second highest player in the NFL by average annual salary behind a certain Green Bay QB.

Is he worth it?

Well, yes. Even having played 5 years in the NFL, Ryan is still seen as a "future" elite player, and once the Bradys, Mannings and Brees' of this league have moved on he'll undoubtedly be in the conversation for the #1 QB if his career continues on the same trajectory on which it's started.

So why does Ryan find himself down at #32 in our top 100 ranking? It had to be due to the question mark that still surrounds his big game ability. He's still 1-4 in playoff appearances.

No one can begrudge him the loss in his rookie season, 11-5 in the regular season is a fantastic rookie performance at QB, and losing to a Kurt Warner led miracle that was the 2008 Arizona Cardinals in the post-season despite going 26-of-40 and throwing 2 TD passes is nothing to be ashamed of. But skip to three years later, a 10-6 season where Ryan has broken 4000 passing yards and thrown 29 TDs, and his offense get completely shut out by the Giants in the playoffs where he failed to break 200 passing yards despite being odds-on favourites. This inconsistency is what keeps peoples opinion of Ryan in check.

Of course, the 2012 season saw Ryan win his first playoff game, a 30-28 sneak win over the Seahawks. Having dominated the first half, taking a 20-0 lead to the break, the Falcons slipped to a 27-28 deficit before Ryan completed two 20 yard passes inside the last 30 seconds and Matt Bryant knocked the game winning FG over with 13 seconds on the clock. In the NFC Championship game the week after, Ryan's numbers were great. 396 yards passing, 3TDs. But at 24-21 up in the 3rd quarter Ryan was sacked by Isaac Sopoaga, then threw a key interception to Chris Culliver. After his defense got him out of trouble and forced David Akers into a long FG which he missed, Ryan got the ball back and subsequently fumbled. This time, his D couldn't bail him out, and Frank Gore found the EZ for the winning score.

With that "first playoff win" monkey off his back, arguably the best receiving corp in the NFL, and now Steven Jackson taking some of the load for him, Ryan has literally everything he could want to propel him into the Super Bowl that he is perfectly capable of making, and winning. But until he does it, there will always be that question over whether he has the stones to take that step. (PG)

31. Julius Peppers, DE, Chicago Bears (TD = 44, PG = 36, GS = 30)
2012 Ranking: 23

2012 wasn't the best season for Julius Peppers health-wise. A litany of injuries plagued him all season, often forcing him back down the tunnel mid-game to get checked out by medical staff.

But through all that  he didn't miss a game for the 5th season in a row and registered 11.5 sacks, even if they did come in fits and starts and featured eight sackless games. The injuries meant Peppers played just 75% of the defensive snaps for the Bears and wasn't the usual force in the run game either.
Julius Peppers and Israel Idonije
P: Casey Rhee

Thanks to the breakthrough of Henry Melton and continued solid play from Israel Idonije the Bears defensive line didn't suffer with his drop off and the defense as a whole was it's usual strong self, but at 33 it's fair to wonder whether Peppers will continue to be affected by injuries, whether they be minor ones he can play through or more serious in nature.

It's fair still, though, to wonder how much those injuries might matter. Despite playing hurt last year, and seeing a small percentage of snaps, those eleven and a half sacks are the most the self-proclaimed "Freak of Nature" has racked up as a Chicago Bear, and his highest sack total since 2008. Even the numbers about his stop-start sack production cannot be taken at face value: in the eight games Peppers didn't record a sack, the Bears defense caused at least three turnovers in six of them - and five turnovers in three of those. Even when Peppers doesn't down the quarterback, he brings immense turnovers that causes quarterbacks to make bad throws and forces running backs back inside in to the arms of his waiting teammates.

Still, Peppers is getting up their in age, despite saying he feels like a man in his mid twenties. He acknowledges that he's tweaked his personal off-season programme to take greater care of his body, a sign that he knows his body can't spring back quite the way it used to. Those questions about how long Peppers can continue at a premier level are fair questions to be asked - for the medium and long term. In the short term, though, Peppers is coming off arguably his best season as a Chicago Bear, and there's no reason to expect any sort of decline in 2013. (TD/GS)

No comments:

Post a Comment