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Wednesday, 17 July 2013

TPL100 2013: 50 - 41

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

The Buccaneers rookies are already in camp, and the first whole-team camps are just three days away. Three days! And there's only 18 days until the Hall of Fame game kicks off on August 4th. Can you feel the excitement starting to build!?

Finally we'll have something to discuss other than which mediocre QB will guide the Jets to a losing season, and just how many people have had Aaron Hernandez's name laser-removed from tattoos in the greater Boston area.

Perhaps more importantly, we mark the half way point in our TPL100 countdown with #50, and as we get into the real meat of our list we'll start to show our true colours, with all the players from here-on-in receiving consensus top 100 nominations. Who made it? Take a look after the jump.

50. Patrick Peterson, CB, Arizona Cardinals (TD = 49, PG = 63, GS = 69)  
2012 Ranking: --

P: Broderick Delaney
The second half of our list starts with a guy who ranks himself as the best cornerback in the NFL. Whilst we wouldn't go that far, the guy is certainly a baller.

Patrick Peterson was widely touted as perhaps the best player in the 2011 draft, with many saying the only reason he wouldn't go #1 was because of his position - a corner having never been taken first overall in the NFL. He ended up "falling" to the very grateful Arizona Cardinals, and instantly started making an impact for his new team.

His first ever play,  in week one of the 2011 preseason, he picked off Philip Rivers and took it back for a TD, and then in week one of the regular season he scored on an 89-yard punt return against the Panthers, lead by the #1 overall pick Cam Newton, on the way to a 28-21 victory. He scored three more PR TDs in his rookie year, two against the Rams inside a month, and became the first player in NFL history to score 4 PR TDs of over 80 yards in one season. He made the All-Pro First Team as a return specialist that year, but some questions still remained over his play at CB - was he too aggressive in zone coverage, and can he tackle?

2012 showed just how successful he can be as an aggressive cover corner. He got 7 picks in the year, as well as defending 16 passes, and allowed only 22.9% of passes thrown his way to be completed, ranking him 5th in the NFL according to Football Outsiders. But aside from his ball skills, Peterson is yet to develop the complete coverage skills, awareness and football instincts that separate truly elite CBs and those on the second level, like Peterson. Give him another couple of years, and he has the chance to be the best in the league. For now, we'll leave him at #50 overall. (PG)

49. Jahri Evans, RG, New Orelans (TD = 70, PG = 47, GS = 59)
2012 Ranking: 33

As linemen, nothing brought more manly tears of joy and beauty to the eyes of the TPL crew than watching the middle of the New Orleans offensive line in action between 2008 and 2011. How often can it have been in NFL history that the league's best right guard and the league's best left guard played together on the same line? It was truly a sight to behold, and though Carl Nicks has since departed for the rival Buccaneers, breaking up one of the all-time great guard duos, Jahri Evans is still as dominant as he's ever been.

Hand off
P: Tom Pumphret
When you watch Evans play, you see someone who simply has no weakness to his game. Though he's not necessarily the strongest guard in the league - as attested to by his bench press results in the 2006 combine, where he notched only 20 reps (six reps below the average for a guard) - he offers a masterclass in how technique trumps all physical measurable, playing with sure and solid footwork, a low and well balanced center of gravity and near-perfect handplacement that makes him a far better drive blocker than mere strength alone could have. Yet, it's his drive-blocking that's arguably his weakest area - he's just so phenomenal at everything else. He has not just the footwork and speed to be a lead blocker on pulls, but has the football intelligence and keen vision to find the right man to lead block - an oft-overlooked aspect of pulling linemen - and, of course, the physicality and technique to entirely blow that defender out of the play, opening up huge running lanes; the same skillset make him a deadly weapon on screens, and you can be assured when #73 finds himself on the edge of the play on a screen, the play's going to go for a long way.

Yet, you can't talk about Evans, or indeed any aspect of the Saints' offense, let alone the O-line, without the conversation turning to the passing game. It's crazy to think that in one year, four people came to New Orleans and founded what has been one of the best aerial attacks in the league ever since - Sean Payton, Drew Brees, Marques Colston and of course Evans. It's hard to separate the effect of each of them individually, as the crucial roles they all play benefit one another; but they've been the pillars on which the Nawlins pass game have been built on - the architect, the quarterback, the primary target and the pass protector. Of course, pass protection never comes down to the actions of just one player - to suggest so would be asinine - but while stats only tell part of the story, there are definite trends that tell at least part of the story of what Evans has meant to this offense: since Evans was drafted by the Saints in 2006, the New Orleans offensive line has allowed sacks on less than 4% of passes in every single year, with their sack percentage finishing in the lowest five teams in the league each season. They are the only team in the league of whom that is true over that timeframe. Yes, there's five guys on that offensive line - but the four-time first team All-Pro is the Saints lineman who has played every single game over that seven-season span. With Drew Brees having never experienced a sub-4.3% sack percentage while at the Chargers, the only constant during this run of near-unprecedented pass-protection dominance has been Evans. He's the complete guard who can do everything asked for him in the run game, but make no mistake - the aerial offensive production that the Saints have had since 2006 is as much a testament to Jahri Evans as it is to Brees, Payton or anyone else in that building. (GS)

48. Wes Welker, WR, Denver Broncos (TD = 52, PG = 42, GS = 68
2012 Ranking: 59

Over the past two seasons, Victor Cruz has become Eli Manning's favourite target, leading the Giants in catches, receiving yards and receiving touchdowns in each of those seasons, helping the team to a Super Bowl trophy and earning himself a Pro Bowl berth in that time. After the usual posturing that occurs when a team slaps one of its best players with a restricted free agent tag, Cruz was rewarded for his efforts with a six-year, $46 million contract earlier this month - a contract on which Cruz claimed to be giving the Giants a 'hometown discount'.

Aaron Rodgers is undoubtedly one of the top quarterbacks in the league right now, and by the time it's all said and done, may be one of the best to have ever played the game. Still, he has been helped by having a ferocious arsenal of receiving weapons at his disposal, a group of receivers that any quarterback would be incredibly envious of, led in 2011 by Jordy Nelson and 2012 by Randall Cobb.

There have been several high-profile trades this offseason, from former first-overall picks in Alex Smith to one of the league's utterly elite defenders in Darrelle Revis. Yet one of the most talked-about storylines this year - that of the ever-increasing 'arms race' in the NFC West between the 49ers and the Seahawks - was kicked off by a blockbuster trade that saw Seattle send their first- and seventh-round picks in the 2013 draft, and a mid-round pick in the 2014 draft, to Minnesota in exchange for Percy Harvin. Critics have lauded the trade for what Harvin can bring to Seattle in multiple facets, well worth not just the picks exchanged but the contract extension they Harvin that, at six years and $67 million, made him one of the highest-paid receivers in the league.

The 2013 draft was one of the most unexpected in the history of the annual selection meeting. For the first time in many years, not only was there no general consensus among pundits and talking heads as to who the first overall selection would be, but there wasn't even a consensus as to how to rank prospects within positional groups. Luke Joeckel was for a long time assumed to be the top tackle in the draft - until Eric Fisher's performance at the Senior Bowl led to his stock rising all the way to the eventual first overall pick. Many thought Chance Warmack was the best interior offensive lineman in the draft - but it was Jonathan Cooper who came off the board first. With the consensus no.1 running back, Marcus Lattimore, suffering a gruesome injury during the college season, many predicted Eddie Lacy to be the running back off the board - he ended up being the fourth from his position to be drafted. A debate raged as to whether Ziggy Ansah or Barkevious Mingo would be the first edge rusher to be taken - it ended up being neither, but rather Dion Jordan. Sharrif Floyd was meant to be the draft's best defensive tackle, and a sure-fire lock to be a top-ten pick - he fell to the 23rd spot, watching two other DTs taken before him. The best quarterback was a complete tossup between Geno Smith, Ryan Nassib and EJ Manuel, with there being no indication which would be the first signal-caller to be drafted. Among all the uncertainty, there were very, very few positions which had a clear, sure-fire overall prospect - one of which was receiver, where it was widely accepted that the best talent in the draft was West Virginia's Tayvon Austin. The draft eventually unfolded in entirely unprecedented fashion, with eight of the first ten draftees selected being linemen of either side of the ball. The first non-OL or DL taken? Tayvon Austin with the eighth overall pick, with the St Louis Rams trading away their first, second, third and seventh round picks to Buffalo (albeit also receiving the Bills' third round pick) to make sure they were able to snatch the dangerous and talented playmaker.

These receivers are among the best in the league, finding themselves some of the most highest valued pass catchers in the league, both from a football perspective and financially. For the first time in NFL history, these vaunted and lauded receivers do not ply their trade along the sidelines of the field - but from the slot, between a wide-out and the offensive line, a position that was traditionally considered a spot for possession receivers only, but is now accepted to be one of the most dangerous places on the field to attack a defense from... and the man these receivers have to thank for transforming their position from depth-chart scrubs to highly sought-after and respected weapons is Wes Welker.

Wes Welker & Matt Light
P: Jack Newton
While the value of attacking defenses from the slot was clear to the league long before Welker, arguably beginning rather in the days of Air Coryell with the deployment of Kellen Winslow in previously unseen alignments that gave defenses fits, it was an aspect of offense explored in the NFL more often by the splitting-out of tight ends when it came to attacking defenses, following Don Coryell's innovative example; otherwise, it was a position demoted only for use by 'possession' receivers, those who were expected to be able to catch the ball for a few yards but not do much else afterwards.

To be sure, there were other receivers who were able to do great things out the slot - but arguably no-one proved to be as consistent and deadly a weapon as a slot receiver as Wes Welker. After getting some usage as a third and fourth receiver in his first two years in the league as a Miami Dolphin, Welker was transformed from a bit-part, package- and role-specific player to a receiver who simply was too good to ever take off the field once he was traded to the Patriots for the 2007 season. In his first year playing with Tom Brady et al., Welker led the entire NFL with 112 catches - a near-unheard of feat for a slot receiver. It marked the first time Welker caught over a hundred balls in his career, but was far from the last - he has gone on to catch 100+ balls a further four of the five other seasons he played for the Patriots, leading the league in receptions twice more during his time in New England. He has led the Patriots in receiving yards every year since 2008, topped 1000 receiving yards every year since 2007 bar the '09 season, and again with the exception of the '09 season, has averaged over 10 yards a catch. He has done things no other receiver in NFL history has ever done: the only player in league history to have five 100-yard seasons; the fastest player ever to reach 500 receptions with a single team, achieving the mark in just 70 games; owning the NFL record for most games with at least 10 receptions and 100 yards. More than all of that, he can justifiably claim to be one of the few players in NFL history to have truly redefined in a position that changes the shape of the game in the NFL - a statement held up by all those slot receivers mentioned at the start of this entry.

The scariest thing? 2013 might arguably see Welker playing with an even more intelligent quarterback than he has been these past six seasons. No doubt one of the aspects of his game that has made Welker so dangerous is both possessing such a high football IQ, and playing with a quarterback similarly gifted in diagnosing what is happening before him and adjusting on the fly. That shared intelligence and understanding of the game allowed Welker and Brady to take advantages of defenses in a way few quarterback-receiver tandems had before, finding soft spots and gaps in coverage that the typical quarterback or receiver are unable to see, so good have the two been at seeing through opposing teams' attempts at disguising their fronts and coverages. Now, Welker is a Denver Bronco, and will be catching passes from the quarterback who may just be better at recognising, analysing and picking apart defenses than anyone to have ever thrown a ball in Peyton Manning (though personally I'd probably give the edge to Jim Kelly). For what Wes Welker has done for the position of slot receiver, he deserves high praise - but for the undeniable damage he should be laying on defenses in 2013 together with Manning, he undoubtedly deserves a spot on our list. (GS)

47. Andrew Whitworth, LT, Cincinnati Bengals (TD = 66, PG = 76, GS = 18)
2012 Ranking: 65

He might have made the first Pro Bowl of his 7 year career in 2012, he may be one of the few offensive lineman to be permanently converted from Guard to Tackle and not vice versa, but it's his comments about a potential London-based franchise that many on this side of the pond will know Bengals LT Andrew Whitworth for. And probably not like him for it.

OL Andrew Whitworth
P: Navin75
If you're in the camp that is pro a UK-based NFL franchise, the fact that players as senior and influential (he's the Bengals representative to the NFLPA) as Whitworth would rather retire than consider playing for the London Theoreticals is pretty damning. Logistics aside, because logistics can always be resolved, if this is the feeling of a significant number of the players around the league, as Whitworth indicates, the idea is basically a non-starter. Whitworth did put the caveat that he'd only retire if it was financially viable, which for most players around the league it wouldn't be, but thanks to his contract extension Whitworth is due to make $4.55 million this season, plus two more years to go at $5m a year, so he'll be doing just fine.

In fairness, Whitworth's play has earned him his money. Since moving from LG to LT in 2009, Whitworth has been a stalwart of a Bengals team that has been through its fair share of issues. He hasn't missed a game at OT in 4 years, has been key in the development of Andy Dalton as a viable NFL QB, and even caught a TD pass back in 2010 from Carson Palmer.

In a hugely tough division like the AFC North, Whitworth has to regularly face some of the best pass rushers in the league. Terrell Suggs, James Harrison, and ummm, whoever the Browns have lined up out there, have all been regular opponents for Whitworth, and have brought out the best in his stout pass pro skills. He often goes under the radar in lists of the best OTs in the league, perhaps because his run blocking can sometimes let him down, but with the Bengals once again a strong force in the NFL, expect to see his name on a lot of analysts lips in 2013. (PG)

46. Brian Cushing, ILB, Houston Texans (TD = 45, PG = 59, GS = 55)
2012 Ranking: 78

The 15th overall pick in 2009, Brian Cushing wowed the NFL his rookie year on what was a poor defense at the time. A fantastic season featuring 4 sacks, 4 picks, 10 passes defensed, a pair of forced fumbles, 134 tackles and a safety won him defensive rookie of the year, only for an off-season failed PED test to put his talent and production in doubt. As did his less than impressive 2010 campaign which was just 12 games due to suspension.

P: Karen
In 2011 the Houston Texans changed from a 4-3 to their now very familiar 3-4 defense, with Cushing moving from outside to an inside linebacker position. The improvement in personnel around him on defense, in the secondary thanks to signing Jonathan Joseph and the talent the Texans bought in on defensive line such as JJ Watt, gave Cushing more protection around him and freed him up more to be the playmaker in the heart of the defense. His numbers bounced back to his rookie levels and his work in coverage, sniffing out screens and keeping tight ends in check over the middle, was fantastic and helped Houston to their first ever playoff berth. Cushing has also been an excellent blitzer from his new ILB position, amassing more combined sacks, hits and hurries than any other inside linebacker in 2011 (per Pro Football Focus)

The Texans entered 2012 as one of the favourites to win not just the AFC but the Super Bowl, and Brian Cushing was a huge reason why. Unfortunately a torn knee ligament suffered in a game against the New York Jets bought his season to an end just 5 games in, and left the Texans with a huge hole in the middle of their defense. One that both Green Bay and New England exploited with great success, sending running backs out on more advanced routes and taking over the middle of the field, all of which eventually lead to their downfall.

With Brian Cushing being cleared for training camp recently, the Texans look set to be a force in the AFC again, and their competitors will need to find another way to score on them, and will have an even harder time blocking them. (TD)

45. Dez Bryant, WR, Dallas Cowboys (TD = 60, PG = 51, GS = 47)
2012 Ranking: --

They say you can't really judge a draft until a few years down the line; in retrospect, the 2010 draft produced some of the best up-and-coming receivers in the league today, including both starting wideouts for the Broncos (Demaryius Thomas, the first receiver taken in the draft at #22, and Eric Decker, a third round pick), both projected starting wideouts for the Pittsburgh Steelers now that Mike Wallace has left town (Emmanuel Sanders and Antonio Brown, taken in the third and sixth round respectively), one of the league's best #2 receivers in Mike Williams (who set a new team record for single-season receiving touchdowns as a rookie, and was the first rookie to have double-digit receiving TDs since Randy Moss), and that's not including Victor Cruz coming into the league as an undrafted free agent that year; yet, there may not have been a better talent to be drafted into the NFL that year than the Cowboys' Dez Bryant.

The only other receiver taken in the first round that year, coming off the board two spots after Thomas, Bryant was widely considered the most physically talented wideout in the draft pool - but one that came with baggage and character concerns, having been ruled ineligible for a majority of the 2009 season after allegedly lying to the NCAA during an investigation into potential contact with an agent through, of all people, Deion Sanders. As it turns out, Bryant's red flags were worse than many thought at the time, as one former Cowboys scout recently came forward declaring the Texas native to have had 'the worst background of any player he had ever seen coming out of college'. For all the talent he undeniably possessed, it was clear that drafting Dez Bryant would be a gamble - but the Cowboys decided to roll the dice regardless.

Dez Bryant | Dallas Cowboys
P: Football Schedule
On the field, the talent was there early in his career, netting over 500 yards and catching six touchdowns as the no. 3 receiver in his rookie year (adding two touchdowns on punt returns) and hauling in nine scores and over 900 yards as a full-time starter in 2011 - but even those numbers weren't enough to convince everyone the trade-off between talent and character was worth it. For all his on-field production, his first two years in the league were accompanied by a range of off-field incidents that range from the trivial (being escorted from a shopping mall for refusing to pull up his sagging trousers) to the moronic (being sued by two separate jewelers for not paying for over $500k of merchandise) to the genuinely repugnant (being arrested for allegedly hitting his mother in the face).

With his reputation as an individual being pretty stained in court of public opinion following that last incident, Bryant nonetheless went on to have his best season yet as a pro in 2012, playing in all 16 games for the first time, topping the 1000-yard milestone for the first time with 1382 yards, good for sixth-best in the league last year, and catching a career-high 12 touchdowns. He also firmly established himself as the team's no.1 wideout with 92 receptions (though still trailing Tony Romo's favourite target, Jason Witten, but just under 20 catches) while leading the team in yards per reception and per game. Last season established a firm trend of improvement by Bryant in every statistical category each year he's been in the league, and there is every reason to believe that trend will only continue in 2013. Much more importantly, for the first time since entering the league, the 2013 offseason has been completely quiet for Dez Bryant, with not a single off-field incident being reported in the press. Whether this is a result of genuine inner growth by Bryant, or whether he's just wised up enough to recognise he needs to keep his head down and his nose clean, either reason for Bryant's name being kept out of the news shows a huge development in his self-awareness and, yes, his maturity, regardless of the motive. With the Dallas Cowboys now having reported to training camp, Bryant should have no legal or personal issues hanging over him when the 2013 season kicks off - and with his marked year-on-year improvement despite off-field and incidents throughout his first three years, having been able to have a quiet offseason should just make his fourth year in the league a dominant one. (GS)

44. Jamaal Charles, RB, Kansas City Chiefs (TD = 20, PG = 62, GS = 49)
2012 Ranking: 75

P: Barry Lenard
For a guy who was the #5 rusher in the NFL in 2012, averaging 5.3 yards a carry, there doesn't seem to be a whole lot of heat surrounding Jamaal Charles, but maybe there should be. He may have had 15 weeks longer to recover, but Charles' return to action following his ACL tear in week 2 of 2011 was just as big an achievement as Adrian Peterson's earth-shattering performance last year, and considering the team he was part of, maybe an even bigger effort.

It's a wonder when you look at Charles' numbers, and the Chiefs roster around him, that they didn't finish better than 2-14, particularly considering they share a division with the hapless Raiders and Chargers, but somehow (see "Quarterback") they did.

Charles put up 1509 yards on the year, and it could have been a whole lot higher if the Chiefs had some sort of coherent coaching. Some weeks he was the bell-cow, carrying the ball 33 times against the Saints in week 3, 31 times against the Ravens in week 5, and 27 times against the Panthers in week 13. Each time he recorded over 100 yards, and each time he had an average of over 4.5, and both of their wins came in these three matches. In other games, the coaching staff just forgot about him: 6 carries in week 2, 5 carries in week 8, 9 carries in week 15. It's that sort of ridiculous move away from their best offensive weapon that cost the Chiefs so dearly in 2012, the fact that he scored 3 of his 5 TDs from 80+ yards out (his other two were 37 yards and 12 yards) goes to show that he's always just one play away from the endzone with his blistering pace and greased-up elusiveness.

Charles passed a major milestone in 2012 too. As he took his 750th NFL carry in week 16 he broke a 47 year old record, previouslyheld by Jim Brown, for the highest YPC over that number of carries. Jim's record stood at 5.22 YPC, Charles' was at 5.82 (now 5.79). When you're breaking 47-year old records held by Jim Brown, you're someone special.

Hopefully the new staff in Kansas City, along with a new stud Left Tackle in Eric Fisher, will help Charles get some consistent touches in 2013. Mind you, Andy Reid loves him some quarterback... (PG)

43. Mike Iupati, LG, San Francisco 49ers (TD = 21, PG = 70, GS = 56)
2012 Ranking: 83

P: Jeffrey Beall
Mike Iupati's wikipedia page lists him as 6 foot 5, 331lbs; but to see him play you have to assume that's an under-measure. He dwarfs everyone he lines up with and against, and then proceeds to destroy any defender in front of him. San Francisco running backs averaged 6.1 yards a carry off left guard in 2012 (per Pro Football Focus). 6.1!! I don't care if that's boosted by their use of read option or teams trying to account for Colin Kaepernick's legs, 6.1 yards a carry is ridiculous. Yes, Iupati's play in the run game is aided by the fact that he's got an elite left tackle outside of him as well as a very good centre inside, but he's a punishing blocker who is rarely beaten to a hole in run blocking and can simply swallow opponents with his blend of excellent technique and strength.

Ever since Jim Harbaugh took over in San Francisco, their ground game has been a joy to watch, not only is it a physical, down-hill attack but they throw in traditional power plays along with some more "exotic" unbalanced lines, tackle-pulls and counter treys. All of which they are able to do thanks to the talent and ability they have on the left side of the line. A guy of Mike Iupati's size shouldn't be able to pull as quickly and devastatingly as he does and when Joe Staley disappears on a pull Iupati is able to get across and block the back side in space.

Mike Iupati is my highest ranked guard, and I was much higher on him than the others by some distance because I love the way he conducts himself in the run game, but I'm not blind to his failings pass protection. He can get beaten in space and isn't always on the ball when it comes to stunts. Iupati is fortunate that the majority of the new generation of interior pass rushing monsters such as JJ Watt and Geno Atkins are in the AFC, and that Justin Smith is on his own team, but I don't think that will cause a moment of hesitation when the 49ers come to negotiate his next contract, which will be soon as Iupati is entering the final 2 years of his rookie contract and will make a "paltry" $2.75million a year. Don't be surprised if he gets more than the 5 year, $37.3million his draft-mate and fellow lineman Anthony Davis either. He might "only be a guard", but boy is he a good one. (TD)

42. Julio Jones, WR, Atlanta Falcons (TD = 86, PG = 29, GS = 29)
2012 Ranking: --

The first round of the 2011 draft was one that gave sportswriters a fair few headlines to write about - there was the hailstorm of boos and jeers that rained down on Roger Goodell from a crowd sickened by the lockout of the players that was still more-or-less in full swing at the time (barring a somewhat-suspicious lapsing in the lockout juuuuuust long enough to get draft prospects taken in the first three rounds their playbooks before the lockout resumed); there was an attempted trading of picks between the Ravens and Bears that, for reasons that didn't seem to be fully explained, didn't go through, resulting in the Ravens missing the window to make their pick (though they still managed to get the prospect they claimed they wanted, Jimmy Smith); and, of course, there was the obvious storyline of whether the self-styled "entertainer and icon", Heisman Trophy winner Cam Newton, had the maturity to turn around the Carolina Panthers.

Yet the biggest, most unexpected incident of the night occurred when the Cleveland Browns were on the clock, holding the sixth overall pick, when Atlanta Falcons general manager Thomas Dimitroff placed a phonecall to the Browns' war-room, offering them the Falcons' first, second and fourth round picks in that draft, plus their first and fourth round picks in the subsequent draft, in exchange for that sixth overall pick. It was a blockbuster trade, with the Falcons sending over a very high value package of picks to move up 21 places - and was seen all the riskier as, should the prospect have been a bust, then the Falcons would have also lost several opportunities to stock up on various positions of need, especially defensive line (which even today remains by a significant margin the weakest unit on the team). Gambling with such a high stake, the Atlanta Falcons selected Quintorris Lopez Jones, wide receiver from Alabama.

Quintorris Jones, better known by his nickname, 'Julio', was widely considered one of the most explosive receivers to enter the draft a long time along side fellow draft prospect AJ Green, who ended up being taken two spots ahead of Jones. While the Falcons needed a good dose of explosion (in 2010, Atlanta's longest single pass play - a 46-yard reception by Roddy White - was shorter than every other NFL team's longest pass play - and came in at 98th among all receivers), the team had just been picked apart by Aaron Rodgers in the Georgia Dome - in large part due to their inability to generate any sort of significant pass rush. Nonetheless, Dimitroff and head coach Mike Smith must have realised that, in today's NFL, you can get away with a weaker defense as long as you can outscore your opponents. So, having seen Julio Jones in action over the past two years, was the trade worth it after all?

P: Wikimedia Commons
If his career continues on its current trajectory, the answer has to be a resounding yes. Jones' numbers might not blow you away, but they're certainly respectable, notching up a little over 2000 yards and 18 touchdowns across his first two seasons. More importantly, though, is what he's meant for the Atlanta offense. For that, you need to look at the difference Jones as made for Matt Ryan: since having Jones at his disposal, Ryan's 2011 and 2012 seasons have seen year-on-year increases of thirty yards per game, allowing him to post 4000-yard seasons, something he failed to achieve before 2011. Naturally, some of that can been attributed to Ryan's general maturing as a quarterback, not to mention a change in offensive co-ordinators for the first time in his career prior to the 2012 season - but you cannot overlook Jones' contribution. The most telling statistic? In 2011, Jones averaged 17.8 yards per reception; the same stat in 2012 was 15.2. Those two figures represent the first and fourth highest yards per receptions respectively that Ryan's ever had a receiver put up during his entire NFL career - with the second and third highest yards-per-catch coming as a rookie in 2008 from Roddy White (15.7) and Michael Jenkins (15.5). Jones has added an ability to stretch the field in a way no receiver has ever managed to do for Ryan - but he's not the only one benefiting from the arrival of Jones. Roddy White turned 30 when Jones came to town - and all-time great Tony Gonzalez a relatively ancient 35. For many, that '3' at the start of their age comes with a loss of speed, playing a half-step slower, and a general reduction in the ability to hold up against typically younger corners. Julio Jones, however, demanded primary attention from defenses for much of his career, particularly in 2012 - causing defenses to roll safeties towards #11 to account for his fearsome speed and explosiveness, as against 99% of corners in the league, it's only a matter of time before Jones will burn the guy opposite him. This attention directed at Jones has drawn coverage away from White and Gonzalez, allowing them to see more favourable matchups, rather than the defensive looks that would have exposed their age to the world had Jones not been there. As dangerous a weapon Jones has been for Ryan, he's also done a hell of a job extending White's and Gonzalez's reigns of superior play.

As you can see, Julio Jones is a study in why looking at the stats is often not enough to discern a player's value - the decent statistics belie the huge effect he's had on the Atlanta offense, both as an explosive weapon for his quarterback and as benefactor to his teammates by having the skills to demand the primary attention from defensive coverage. Yet, you can't sleep on those numbers either - Jones improved in almost every statistical category in 2012, and with his quarterback now a very happy man as a result of his new, $100 million contract extension, 2013 should be an even better season for Jones, both on the stats sheet, and in the intangible effects he has on the Falcons' O. (GS)

41. Maurice Jones-Drew, RB, Jacksonville Jaguars (TD = 32, PG = 41, GS = 67)
2012 Ranking: 12

P: Parker Anderson
It's a pretty thankless task being just about the only highlight-worthy player in an entire franchise, but for the last few years that has been MJD's role. Until 2012, it's something he seemed pretty content to do, but last year was pretty turbulent for Pocket Hercules.

After breaking 1300 rushing yards for each of the previous three seasons, making both the Pro Bowl and All-Pro teams each year of that spell, and leading the NFL in yards in 2011 with 1606, Jones-Drew was at the top of the game, and both the NFL Players and us here at TPL had him ranked as the #12 player in the league. But he wasn't getting paid like it.

MJD signed his current deal back in 2009, before he'd even broken the 1000 yard mark, and despite scoring 34 rushing TDs his first 3 years, he was paid on a scale that pales in comparison to the numbers guys on an equal footing to him make now. In 2012 he was due to make $6.3m, but that wasn't enough for him, and he decided to hold out of camp with the hopes of renegotiating his contract. The Jags didn't bite, and whilst he missed the entire off-season programme, MJD reported back to the team 1 week before their first game.

With so many other running backs having suffered significantly through mostly "soft tissue" injuries following hold-outs, the O/U on how well MJD would perform in 2012 wasn't set high. Through 6 weeks he'd put up a measly 414 rushing yards, with 1 rushing and 1 receiving TD, and then on the second play of week 7, he got injured. Although the Jags initially denied it, MJD suffered a dreaded Lisfranc injury in his foot, missing the rest of the season and being forced to undergo surgery and remain in a walking boot for many weeks. Although understandably guarded about his progress, the Jags are confident MJD will be ready to contribute this season, and cleared him to practice earlier this week.

Just how badly his 10 months away from football and the undoubted lingering effects of his injury will affect him remain to be seen, but for a guy who relies so heavily on his explosiveness and flashes brilliance when he's at his best, Jaguar fans and NFL fans alike will be hoping he's back to his old self. (PG)

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