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Monday, 8 July 2013

TPL100 2013: 60 - 51

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

The calendar has turned to July, and that only means one thing - training camp is right around the corner. Yes, ladies and gentlemen, we're only a few weeks away from football returning into our lives until February - happy days indeed! Only a few more weeks before sporting media can stop having to fill airtime and column inches with ridiculous stories only loosely related to the NFL and can focus on actual football - less of Sapp/Strahan feuding and of Mark Sanchez's bare ass, more of coaches and players discussing how their schemes are coming together, of rosters being constantly re-shaped as general managers look for that one hidden gem buried deep in the remnants of the free agency market, and of depth charts being finalised as grizzled veterans are replaced by young studs and highly-touted former first rounders battle free agent signings as they try to shake the 'bust' label before they find themselves a washed up cautionary tale for incoming rookies. It's almost back, my friends. Almost.

But not quite yet. The first rookies to report to camp will be the Tampa Bay Buccaneers', who report on the 17th; the first full-team camps to report belong to the Miami Dolphins and Dallas Cowboys, the two teams who will play in the Hall of Fame game on August 4th, which open up on the 20th. With the return of the NFL so tantalizingly close, we all need a football fix to get us over the final hump. Luckily, with the TPL100 closing in on the halfway point of our countdown, you can find your fix after the jump...

60. C.J. Spiller, RB, Buffalo Bills (TD = 76, PG = 66, GS = 74)
2012 Ranking: --

CJ Spiller at combine
P: ArmyAllAmericanBowl
Speaking of the 'bust' label, a good way of being saddled with the dreaded 'b' word is to be a top-ten draft pick, and then spend your first two years as a pro being outperformed by someone who not only went undrafted, but had to spend two years playing in a regional indoor football league and a third in NFL Europe before a proper NFL team would even give him a shot. Though he undoubtedly had all the potential in the world when the Bills took him with the ninth pick of the 2010 draft, Spiller was a curious pick anyway by a team that had plenty of holes all over their roster, and already had a first-round running back who would go on to bring joy to many a Seattle fan when he was traded to the Seahawks during that season. When that season's breakout running back turned out not to be Spiller, but rather Fred Jackson, it seemed an even more questionable decision to take the Clemson product, especially as he managed only a pedestrian 3.8 yards a carry as a rookie. Though he did carve out a role with the team as a third-down scat-back in the early part of his sophomore campaign, the ninth-overall pick is still far too high a price for a role player, and Spiller may well have been seen as a Reggie Bush-lite - had Fred Jackson stayed healthy.

Yet, Jackson went on IR with six games left in the 2011 season, and the Bills turned to Spiller to carry the load, even though he had at the point never had double-digit carries in an NFL game. With very little to show for his NFL career to that point, totalling under 400 yards through his first 24 career games, Spiller finally had an opportunity to shine - and shine he did. In the remaining six games of the season, Spiller racked up 446 yards on the ground, an additional 187 through the air, and carried or caught five touchdowns. The following year, Spiller pretty much put a nail in the 'bust' coffin, having his first 1000-yard season and his first Pro Bowl berth, and for the first time in his career, leading Buffalo Bills running backs in all major statistical categories. More significantly, he tied for first among all running backs with Adrian Peterson for yards-per-carry at 6 yards an attempt, an astonishing number to maintain over a season. For the first time in 2012, C.J. Spiller looked like a player worthy of the ninth-overall pick - and that's a trend we expect only to continue in 2013, where Doug Marrone's high-tempo offense should serve only to play to Spiller's strength, and to put him in the conversation for the league's top running backs. (GS)

59. Victor Cruz, WR, New York Giants (TD = 75, PG = 83, GS = 58)
2012 Ranking: 98

Before the start of week 3 in 2011, the mention of Victor Cruz brought a simple response. "Who?"

An undrafted free agent from UMass, Cruz looked poised to make an impact in his rookie year, finishing preseason leading the league in receiving yards (297), but a hamstring injury saw him his IR after seeing the field in only 3 games and recording no receptions in the regular season.

P: Kat Vitulano
By week 4 of 2011, Cruz was a hot topic. 3 receptions for 110 yards, and 2 TDs, including a 74 yard score against the Eagles, and everyone was samba-ing to his tune. Finishing the regular season with  1536 yards, 9 TDs, and an NFL record equaling 99 yard TD reception vs the Jets there was no question that he had arrived, but as part of the receiving tandem with Hakeem Nicks there was some doubt over whether his impact would be sustainable. In the playoffs, Nicks overtook Cruz as the star of the Giants passing offense, recording 280 receiving yards and 4 TDs in the Wild Card and Divisional rounds alone, compared to Cruz's 102 yards and no scores over the same stretch, but in the big one, despite Nicks again going over 100 yards, it was Cruz who found the end zone in the Super Bowl and helped his team to their historic second victory over the Patriots in 4 years.

Cruz's real value to NYG became even more apparent last year, with injuries to Nicks severely limiting his productivity. As a starter for his first full season, Cruz again went over 1000 yards, and found the endzone 10 times, using his blistering outside pace to record TDs of 77 and 80 yards.

In a league where receiver roles are becoming ever more specialised as "inside" or "outside" guys, Cruz has found his niche and will keep terrorising opposition corners in 2013. (PG)

58. Eric Weddle, FS, San Diego Chargers (TD = 30, PG = 57, GS = -- )
2012 Ranking: 79

P: Wikimedia Commons
The San Diego Chargers aren't the team they used to be. Gone are the days of battling with New England and Indy for a place in the Super Bowl, now it's a fight to have a .500 season, something they haven't done since 2010. But the decline of the team has had nothing to do with any worsening play from their star free safety Eric Weddle.

A reduction in interceptions more often than not shows that opposing quarterbacks are taking fewer chances when throwing on you, making sure the receiver is open before releasing the ball. Maybe they're out and out not throwing on you. The same is true with Weddle (7 interceptions in 2011 to just 3 in 2012). His level of play over the past few seasons has earned him a level of respect from QB's that means they simply don't take the chance if he's lurking back where your average safety couldn't make a play on a pass. But just because he's not picking off as many passes doesn't mean his impact is any less.  83 tackles, a pair of forced fumbles and even a sack in 2012, Eric Weddle can truly do it all.

For the Chargers to get back towards the playoffs and consistent contender status new head coach Mike McCoy will have to fix a lot of things, but one thing he doesn't have to worry about is his safety play. (TD)

57. Marshawn Lycnh, RB, Seattle Seahawks (TD = 85, PG = 37, GS = 85)
2012 Ranking: --

It's something of a dilemma: how valuable is a one-trick (well, one-and-a-half-trick) pony if it does its only trick very well? That's the dilemma you face when trying to place Marshawn Lynch. Now, Seahawks fans, before you jump on Twitter to tell me how wrong I am about Lynch (though please do tweet us to let us know what you think of our countdown so far!), time for a quick reality check:

- Marshawn Lynch and pass-protection do not go well together. He occasionally slows down a blitzing linebacker long enough to let his QB get a pass off before the defender can get home, but it's a rare sighting when that happens; as a generality, Lynch is someone who cannot be trusted to stop his QB getting killed down-in, down-out - there's a reason Russell Wilson has raved about second-year backup Robert Turbin's pass protection abilities this off-season. It's been a problem since his Buffalo days, and continues to be a problem in Seattle. The reason three-down running backs are so highly sought after is because with such a player in the backfield, a play could be a run, a play-action or a seven-step deep bomb without the defense being any the wiser. When you have to start subbing in backups because your starter is unable to perform in one key phase of the game, it significantly limits your ability to catch the defense off guard. That's a problem the Seahawks have with Lynch as their starter.

Marshawn Lynch | Seattle Seahawks
P: Football Schedule
- Beyond screen passes, Lynch has been underutilised in the pass game for much of his career, sophomore campaign aside. There's a reason for that. As a pass-catcher, Lynch can be graded 'serviceable, but no more'; his half-a-trick, if you will. Though he's been good for around 150-200 yards through the air every season of his career, more telling is the number of catches he gets a year, which averages out as barely over 20. By comparison, a large number of starting running backs average around 35-40 catches a year. Unlike pass protection, he has some limited skill in this area, but the key word is 'limited' - and again, it reduces the selection of plays available to the playcaller when Lynch is in the backfield.

So, why is Lynch so high up in our rankings if he's got such flaws in two of the three areas of running back play?

Because he's that damn good at running the ball.

The aptly-named 'beast mode' truly is a monster when he's pounding the ball between the tackles. In many ways, Lynch is a throwback to a bygone age - a running back who simply wants to lower his head and run over the opposition. It's not surprising to find that Lynch was one of just eighteen running backs to break over 20 tackles in 2012 according to Football Outsiders - breaking a tackle on 7.5% of his carries. The other major football statistics guys, Pro Football Focus, focus instead on 'missed' tackles to generate their an 'Elusive Rating'; Lynch came 11th in his Elusive Rating for 2012, but more significantly, came fifth overall over the last three years. Lynch has proven to have both the strength to break tackles, and the footwork and agility to make defenders miss in the first place - all while running for a career-high 5.0 yards per carry in 2012. Yes, he may not be someone who can be trusted in pass-protection, and he may only be able to offer a limited contribution to the passing game, both of which can have a negative effect on the play calling when he's on the field; but despite that, Marshawn Lynch is such a good runner, boosted even further by running behind the league's second best offensive line according to our own stat, OLR, that we fully expect 'Beast Mode' to beast his way through the 2013 season. (GS)

56. Ryan Clady, LT, Denver Broncos (TD = 42, PG = 19, GS = -- )
2012 Ranking: 37

P: Jeffrey Beall
He may be yet to have a long-term contract signed with the Broncos (as of writing), but here at TPL towers we slot Ryan Clady into out Top 100 at #56, falling 19 places from last year, despite a having been an integral part of the Broncos consecutive trips to the playoffs with first Tim Tebow, and now Peyton Manning at the helm.

If you want a thankless job as an LT in the NFL, blocking for Tim Tebow and Kyle Orton might just about top the bill. When your quarterback needs triple the time of any other QB to wind up his arm before throwing an incompletion it's inevitable that you're going to give up more sacks than if you've got a guy with good pocket awareness behind you. After allowing just 0.5 sacks in his rookie season blocking for Jay Cutler, Clady's sacks allowed were much higher with far less accomplished signal callers behind him, allowing 24.5 sacks over a three year period including a career high 9.0 when blocking for Tebow in 2011. It's no wonder when you look at these numbers that people have seen Clady's form as a slump, but they really mask the fact that he's been doing a good job in a painfully tough situations.

When you look at his 2012 numbers, his real class stands out. Give him a good QB (or great, like Peyton) and he's back in his element, allowing just 1.0 sacks in the whole of 2012, thanks to Manning's ability to get rid of the ball in an acceptable amount of time, unlike his predecessors in Denver. He earned himself First-Team All-Pro status, his third Pro Bowl nomination, and is clearly a top-level OT, as only the fourth lineman in NFL history to start every game in his first five seasons and get at least three Pro Bowl berths in that time.

Despite off-season shoulder surgery, Clady will be back as a cornerstone of the Denver offense, and without him, expect Peyton Manning's career to come to an abrupt end on a 3rd and long in Week 1. (PG)

55. Ryan Kalil, C, Carolina Panthers (TD = 81, PG = 40, GS = 81)
2012 Ranking: 28

P: Football Schedule
Ryan Kalil came in as our top ranked centre last year, and it's a position he retains in 2013 despite sliding all the way to #55.

After playing just 5 games in 2012 there isn't there really much to add to what we said last year. What was true then remains so, Kalil is dominant despite his smaller stature and is fully deserving of the $49million contract he got last off-season to become the highest paid centre in the NFL. 2012 was the first time Kalil had missed a snap since becoming the starter in 2008, suffering a lisfranc injury that forced him onto IR but it won't prevent him coming back at full strength in 2013. Such continuity in the interior had resulted in Carolina's ground game being among the best in the league (as did their crazy investment in running backs), and his absence made them noticeably worse. Our OLR rankings, in which the Panthers finished 15th overall, shows that the Panthers were far better with Kalil on the field than without.

With the NFC South becoming one of the most competitive divisions in football the Panthers will have their work cut out to improve on a 13-19 record in the last 2 seasons. If they want to hit .500 for the first time since 2009, get involved in the wildcard race and maybe even make a return to the play-offs it's not just Cam Newton who will take them there, but their All-Pro centre. Let's just hope he takes it easy on the Super Bowl promises this season. (TD)

54. Tamba Hali, OLB, Kansas City Chiefs (TD = 58, PG = 65, GS = 46)
2012 Ranking: 44

If you needed any proof that NFL teams cannot get buy on sheer talent alone, you need look no further than the Kansas City Chiefs, who had three times as many Pro Bowlers (6) than they did wins (2) in 2012. Yet, sheer talent is one thing that the Chiefs do possess in many of their players - and arguably none more so than in their three-time Pro Bowl edge rusher, Tamba Hali. Yet, the Liberian-born linebacker did slide down ten spots in our rankings this year, and in some respects, 2012 was something of a worse season - he had a career-low fifty one tackles, despite the Chiefs seeing the sixth-most rushes of any defense in 2012, and also caused just a single forced fumble, also a career-low. His 9 sacks also represented the first time since his breakout 2010 season that he missed out on double digit sacks. With a regression in tackles, forced fumbles and sacks, why do we still believe Hali will be the 54th-best player in 2013?

P: Barry Lenard
Simple: Hali is just as good as he's always been - his 'down' season was the product of being on a bad team, not any deficiency on Hali's part. A lower number of tackles against an increased number of runs faced might raise some eyebrows, but his fifty one tackles is still a respectable number for someone who is primarily a pass-rusher. Nine sacks, on the other hand, may appear low for a pass rusher who has been selected for three straight Pro Bowls and made the 2011 All-Pro second team - until you look back at the numbers: while they faced the sixth most rushing attempts last season, no-one saw fewer pass attempts than the Chiefs' D in 2012. With a non-existent pass game and two starting QBs who appeared to enjoy nothing more than gifting the ball to the opposing team - not to forget that the Chiefs tied the long-defunct Buffalo Bisons' 1929 record for most consecutive games in a season without leading for a single second of regulation game time, with KC not leading a team during the first four quarters of a game until Week 10. With the Chiefs' offense so impotent, and the team's run defense allowing 4.5 yards per rush, there was little need to pass often against Kansas City - giving Hali much, much fewer opportunities to get a sack than he has had in previous seasons, which naturally accounts too for the fewer fumbles on Hali's stat sheet, as they have typically come on strip-sacks than fumbles on running backs.

So, Hali's somewhat lower numbers in 2012 are easily accountable for - but if 2013 is more of the same from the rest of the Chiefs, Hali's numbers are unlikely to be any better. Jamaal Charles had a career year last season, after all, but that wasn't near enough to make opposing offenses feel like they needed to air the ball out - to Hali's detriment. Will the arrival of Andy Reid and Alex Smith rejuvenate the Chiefs offense enough to force opposing offenses to pass the ball more than they did last season? More importantly, will new defensive co-ordinator Bob Sutton's defense do a good enough job on first and second downs to put Hali in position to do what he does best - pin his ears back and head for the quarterback without having to give thought to the run? Sutton's last stint as a DC was for the New York Jets between 2006 and 2008; in two of those three seasons, the Jets had a bottom-10 rush defense - perhaps an ominous sign for Hali's opportunities to face obvious passing downs. 2012 proved that even a great talent like Hali can only do so much if there are failings all around him; there are reasonable concerns about whether Hali will have much more to work with next season, but one thing is for sure - whenever Hali does manage to find himself free to rush the passer, there are few in the league who can do it better. (GS)

53. Roddy White, WR, Atlanta Falcons (TD = 74, PG = 39, GS = 60)  
2012 Ranking: 70

P: Mark Runyon | Football Schedule
In an offense as high-powered as the Falcons, it'll hardly be a spoiler for me to tell you that whilst Roddy White is the first, he certainly isn't the last aerial threat from the Falcons we'll be featuring.

In his 8 seasons in the league, White's numbers are eye-popping. Over 8,000 yards, 52 TDs, and hasn't finished a year with fewer than 1,150 yards since 2006. 2010 was a highlight for him, leading the NFC in receiving yards (1,389) and the entire league in receptions (115), getting his first All-Pro nomination, and being voted WR of the year by NFL Alumni. So obvious, the Falcons followed this season by blowing the bank on another receiver.

With the addition of Julio Jones, many expected White's targets, receptions and scores to decrease as QB Matt Ryan looked to find his latest toy, but this really hasn't been the case. If anything, adding another potent weapon to the offense has freed White from increasing double coverage looks, and as Julio's star rises, Roddy can expect to face more and more #2 and #3 CBs in single coverage, particularly as he continually increases his looks inside the hash marks and moving the chains. Now 31, White may have lost a step of the outside pace he used to possess, but he knows how to use the physical skills he's blessed with as well as anyone in the league, and plays a lot bigger than his 6'0 frame suggests he should. The explosive big plays will be increasingly left to his partner in crime, but don't expect White's impact to diminish just yet. (PG)

52. Jason Peters, LT, Philadelphia Eagles (TD = 62, PG = 86, GS = 42)
2012 Ranking: 17

Jason Peters was our highest ranked O-Linemen in last years rankings, and that was after his initial achilles tear. We were all bullish that he'd be the same guy when he came back. Well that might have been the case, but during his rehab he went and tore it again, then the Eagles drafted a stud left tackle in Lane Johnson. This season we've seen with Terrell Suggs just what achilles tears can do to the larger player and if the same happens to Peters, he becomes slower and less agile, then a huge part of what made him our highest ranked O-Linemen in 2012 will have disappeared.

Reports are that Peters is doing well in his recovery and that he's impressing the new Philadelphia coaching staff, but with a whole new offense and blocking scheme to get to grips with and a talented rookie after his job Jason Peters will have his work cut out just to get back on the field, let alone return to "best offensive lineman in football" territory. We hope he can though, because Jason Peters in full flow is an absolute force in every facet of the game and a joy to watch.

With all their offensive line injuries the Eagles offense was horrible all year, with Peters and linemates Jason Kelce and Todd Herremans also expected back in 2013 the Eagles should once again be in the playoff race. (TD)

51. Matt Forte, RB, Chicago Bears (TD = 83, PG = 73, GS = 26)
2012 Ranking: 54

P: Matt Trostle
Matt Forte is one of those running backs that gets easily forgotten. He doesn't put up huge numbers, his rookie season of 316 carries, 1,238 yards, 8 TD's + 63 catches, a 4 receiving TD's was his best and all those numbers are career highs. But he's risen in our rankings this year and was put as high as 26 by Gur, why is it then, that just 6 total touchdowns and 1,434 yards from scrimmage in 2012 can have a player on the cusp of the top 50 players in the NFL?

One is Forte's remarkable durability in the NFL. He fell to the second round in 2008 because of heavy usage and a torn PCL during his time at Tulane, but since joining the Bears Matt Forte has missed just 5 games.

Another reason Matt Forte doesn't always get the respect he deserves is simply how Da Bears use him, mainly that they take him out at the goal line and spelling him with above-average backups. Too often Forte's fantasy owners have cursed Lovie Smith as they watched Forte drag the Bears up the field only to see the touchdown get handed to Marion Barber or Michael Bush, or been on pace to win one week only to see Forte's touches dry up. And let's not get started on the kind of blocking Forte has received from a Chicago Bears offensive line that has been among the worst in the league every year during Forte's career.

All those points make it easy for casual fans and observers to over-look #22 when it comes to lists such as this. The truth is that Matt Forte might just be the most complete running back in the NFL today.

Some might be better pure rushers, or pure pass protectors, but Matt Forte can do everything you'd every want of a running back to a very high level. He's averaged 4.6 yards per carry over the last 3 years as well as 9.4 yards per reception. between 2009 and 2011, among running backs, only Ahmad Bradshaw stayed in to pass block more (347 times to 334 per Pro Football Focus), and yet Forte caught 160 passes during that span compared to Bradshaw's 102.

A year ago the Bears signed Forte to a 4-year, $32 million contract with around $17million in guarantees. Compared to Chris Johnson (#91) who a year earlier signed for 4 years, $53.5million and $30 million guaranteed the Bears got an absolute steal, and it's paying dividends for them every game. (TD)

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