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Wednesday, 7 August 2013

TPL 2013: 30 - 21

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

Football's back! Actual football in pads with people hitting each other and everything! Sure, it's only the preseason, but after so many long months without the NFL on our screens, we'll happily gulp down every morsel of football there is. With the Hall of Fame game now played, in which our friend George Selvie absolutely killed it (well, he follows us on Twitter - that means we're friends, right? Why not be our friend to and give us a follow), the other 30 teams will get their first taste of full-speed on-field action starting on Thursday. Yes, the starters don't really get much time until the third game of the pre-season, but even this opening salvo of games will excite the diehards, as it's the first time you get a feel for who might stick on the roster come September - and who is quickly playing their way out of a roster spot and into unemployment. Most importantly, it means there's just one month left before regular season kicks off - and just one month left of the TPL100 countdown. We begin the next instalment with #30...

30. Jared Allen, DE, Minnesota Vikings (TD = 51, PG = 34, GS = 21)
2012 Ranking: 18

Believe it or not, the thirtieth-best player in the NFL in our eyes is also our highest-ranked 4-3 defensive end. It might seem strange that, in such a pass-happy league, the top 4-3 end is relatively low down our countdown - but it's perhaps less surprising coming after a season where just one of the top five sack totals belonged to a 4-3 end (our 36th-best player, Cameron Wake), and barely over half of the top 50 sack totals - 26 to be precise - were claimed by players playing a position so devoted to pass-rush, featuring much less time devoted to dropping into coverage when compared to their 3-4 OLB counterparts. It's an interesting trend to be sure, but this is not the place to have that discussion. What this is the place to discuss is one heck of a football player.

Jared Allen was always going to struggle to follow up to 2011's monster campaign, where he fell just half a sack short of the Michael Strahan's single-season record, but his sack total dropping from 22 to 12 must have been a disappointment, though it may perhaps be a result of both playing hurt (needing surgery on his shoulder this offseason) and his teammates stepping up, with the rest of the team combining for 32 sacks, compared to 2011's 27 (though with the drop in Allen's production, the team still had five fewer sacks in total). In fact, it's this depth that will hurt Allen's potential production in 2013 more than anything: by his own admission, the current Vikings' defensive line unit is the deepest he's ever been a part of - and deep defensive lines typically mean a greater use of player rotation. Though Allen's surgery was successful, reports just a few hours ago from training camp broke of Allen limping off the field with his ankle wrapped - all the more reason to explore that depth, increase the rotation and have Allen take ever-fewer snaps.

Jared Allen
P: Mike Morbeck
Yet, Allen still ranks higher than any of his positional peers in this countdown, and, we feel, for good reason. He may have an ankle injury, but the team's not yet sent him for MRI, indicating no immediate cause for serious concern, a good sign. Even if it is a minor injury, Allen was able to come eighth in sacks last season even with that shoulder injury, so a double-digit season should certainly be within his grasp even if playing a little hurt. The very thing that might threaten his production - the deeper depth at the position with the scope for a greater rotation between players - is also just as likely to enhance it, keeping any potential lingering ankle issues at bay by reducing the number of snaps he has to see while also ensuring he's consistently fresher during those snaps he does play, a factor that could easily see him dominate left tackles even more routinely than he already does. Finally, you can't overlook that motivating factor that powers all Western economies - the desire for more money. Yes, 2013 is the last season on Jared Allen's contract with the Vikings, and he's already stated that he's content to play out his deal. It probably didn't escape his notice that three of the most vaunted pass-rushers of the past decade - Dwight Freeney, Osi Umenyiora, and the only active player in the league with more sacks than Allen, Jonathan Abraham - struggled mightily to find new deals despite still putting up good numbers. Allen knows he needs to impress this year if he doesn't want to end up in the same position come next free agency period, and there's every reason to believe he'll meet the challenge - after all, the last time he faced his final season under his contract, in 2007 with Kansas City, he led the league in sacks, the first of two times he had done so. With a deeper, more talented defensive line to stretch offensive blocking schemes to near-breaking point, the real possibility that despite fewer total snaps, he'll be fresher on every snap he does play this year, and a real motivation factor between the end of his current contract and the near-nonexistent market for older pass-rushers last offseason, there is every reason to expect that Allen will have a career year in 2013. (GS)

29. Jimmy Graham, TE, New Orleans Saints (TD = 35, PG = 35, GS = 31)
2012 Ranking: 42

P: Mark Runyon | Pro Football Schedules

The key to a great tight end is clearly a career in basketball.

Much like Tony Gonzalez and Antonio Gates before him, Jimmy Graham's background in sport has just as much to do with basketball, if not more, than it has to do with football. In fact, Graham had graduated from the University of Miami with a double major before even taking the football field for the Hurricanes. Only in 2009, whilst taking graduate classes, did he join the football team, and playing at tight end recorded 17 receptions on the year, 5 of which were TD scoring. To be drafted on the back of 17 career receptions is crazy, to go in the third round is unthinkable, and speaks volumes for the pure athletic specimen that Graham is.

In his rookie year he doubled his career TD count with 5 more scores for the Saints, and in his second season, his first as a starter, he equalled or broke numerous Saints and league wide records on his way to 99 receptions for 1310 yards and 11TDs. For a few hours he held the NFL record for most receiving yards by a TE in a season, until that record was taken from him by another guy yet to appear on our list.

His numbers were a little down in 2012, but a 950+ yard, 9 TD season can hardly be called a drop off, especially when you consider he spent most of the year harboring a wrist-injury that gave him pain with every reception or block he he made. A big chunk of the Saints 2012 season was a write-off anyway, so with the teams expected bounce-back in 2013, look for Graham to be the favourite target for one of the undisputed best QBs in the NFL. A combo like Brees-Graham has the opportunity to be something very very special. (PG)

28. Geno Atkins, DT, Cincinnati Bengals (TD = 28, PG = 54, GS = 13)
2012 Ranking: 73

The draft is one of the great crapshoots in sport, all the experts can say a guy is can't miss and he'll be out of the league before you can even say "bust". And sometimes a late round pick, who you just hope can be a decent back up or a reliable role player will turn into an absolute monster and you'll scratch your head about how he could fall to the 3rd day of the draft. Which is exactly what's happened with Geno Atkins.

P: Jeffrey Beall
All the draft hype in 2010 was about Ndamukong Suh and Gerald McCoy, both of whom have been good players in their own right and made this list, but none have been quite as devastating as Geno Atkins.

His career started quietly, as you'd expect for a 4th round pick.  While Suh was picking up awards and enemies as a rookie, Atkins was learning his trade and honing his skills with the Bengals. He played in all 16 games as a rookie but started just 1. The 3 sacks he recorded in limited action were just a glimpse of his ability. By opening week of 2011 Atkins had claimed a starting position and began a campaign of pain against opposing quarterbacks. 20 sacks later and he's claimed his rightful place on our list as the top 4-3 defensive tackle in the NFL.

At six foot and one solitary inch, Geno Atkins doesn't look all that imposing stood on the sidelines, he's not a huge immovable object like a Vince Wilfork, nor is he a tall, rangy figure like his six foot four inch draft-mates. What Atkins is though, is perhaps even more dangerous. His shorter height allows him to play with fantastic natural leverage against opposing guards, his compact size gives him fantastic explosion and his dogged determination keeps him going play after play after play.

Perhaps the best example of the outstanding season Atkins had in 2012 (12.5 sacks, 4 FF, 2 PD) is this gif: Atkins drives Willie Colon back 5 yards before tossing the 315lb guard aside like he was a running back and then doing the near-impossible of sacking Ben Roethlisberger first time with no help. It's a ridiculous play and is just one example of what he was able to do to those who got between him and the football and why we love him here at TPL. (TD)

27. Earl Thomas, FS, Seattle Seahawks (TD = 36, PG = 21, GS = 33)
2012 Ranking: 90

P: Jeffrey Beall
Another member of "the best secondary in football" finds himself flying up our rankings this year. Earl Thomas comes in as our highest ranked safety for 2013 in just his 3rd year in the NFL.

Seattle's turn around from NFL laughing stock to trendy Super Bowl pick can be linked to their success in the draft, and not just in the selections paying off but their manipulation of it in trades. In 2009 they flipped their 2nd round pick, 37th overall, to Denver for the Broncos 2010 first rounder, which ended up being the 14th overall selection. That in itself is a great bit of business, but when you look at the players involved it becomes daylight robbery. Denver selected Alphonso Smith's rookie year with the Broncos was so poor, appearing in 14 games with just 3 passes broken up and 12 tackles, that he was quickly traded to Detroit for TE Dan Gronkowski. Smith has started just 11 games for the Lions since then and been burnt so regularly it's funny. The Seahawks? Well they waited a year and picked up Thomas.

You hear quarterbacks from the 2000's talk about safety play and it's all about Ed Reed and his range. How Reed was never out of position because he could always make up the ground and make a play on the ball. It's a similar situation with Earl Thomas now, his ability to close on a ball in the air, to either sideline, makes him an incredibly difficult opponent to play against. He's no slouch in run support either, even if the presence of Kam Chancellor means he no longer buzzes around the line of scrimmage as frequently as he used to.

Thomas' interceptions have dipped since his rookie season as quarterbacks are more careful going deep against him (and as the rest of the secondary has improved around him). Though he's still making plenty of plays, with 3 interceptions and a career-high 9 passes defended in the regular season (per Pro Football Reference) while also picking up a pick in each of Seattle's playoff games. His interception against Washington was indicative of the problem he creates for quarterbacks. Thomas is playing as a single high safety in the middle of the field with man coverage underneath, Pierre Garcon is able to beat Brandon Browner deep outside the numbers and Robert Griffin III makes the right read as a crossing route from the other side of the field AND a play-action ought to freeze Earl Thomas, but he doesn't bite on the run, honours the crosser from a distance and then breaks back and across the field to make a perfect interception 30 yards deeper than his initial start point and on the far sideline. It's the kind of play that drives quarterbacks crazy and changes games, and is something Earl Thomas will be doing for many, many years to come. (TD)

26. LeSean McCoy, RB, Philadelphia Eagles (TD = 41, PG = 24, GS = 23)
2012 Ranking: 19

2012 was a story all about injuries for the Philadelphia Eagles, with almost the entirety of their starting OL missing time, as well as their undisputed offensive star, Shady McCoy.

Coming off the back of a 1309 yard, 17 TD season in 2011, so much was expected of McCoy for 2012. With one of the strongest OLs in the NFL, a mobile QB like Mike Vick, and dynamic receiving threats on the outside, defenses had too much to worry about to stack 8 men in the box to deal with McCoy, like they often have to do with the likes of AP and Arian Foster.

Then, the season started.

Despite scraping 1 point wins over Cleveland and Baltimore in the first 2 weeks, including a 110 yard 5.8YPC performance from Shady in week 1, there has never been a less competent looking 2-0 team. The Eagles won just 2 more games all year, and McCoy broke 100 yards in a game just twice more also, and one of them was against the Saints so didn't really count. The inconsistency of the Eagles O, and hence McCoy's production, was shocking. He could switch from a 1.8 YPC one week to 6.3 the next, and without the rest of an offense to back him up, the Eagles never had much going for them from then on in.

By week 12, the injury bug had bitten him too. Concussion kept him out for 4 straight games, and gifted 7th round rookie Bryce Brown a chance to earn his NFL stripes. In his first two starts he recorded 347yds and 4 TDs, and so ended McCoy's status as one of the few feature backs still remaining in the NFL.

McCoy still has the talent to be one of the greatest RBs in the NFL, and behind a re-tooled OL could have an explosive year. But two questions still linger: what kind of production will Chip Kelly's offense allow running backs, and what kind of carry split will there be between Shady and Brown? 80:20? 60:40? Worse? Pre-season might give us some clues.... (PG)

25. Joe Haden, CB, Cleveland Browns (TD = 25, PG = 33, GS = 25)
2012 Ranking: 89

We finally have the first Cleveland Brown of the list!! Joe Haden, like many of the top cornerbacks, found his interception total now that quarterbacks know just how good he is. For many fans that means he had an "off year" or was simply overrated. No so. Haden has been spectacular since being drafted 7th overall in 2010.

Playing in Cleveland it's pretty hard to get recognition, particularly when it's so easy to throw elsewhere, but Haden's production has been great. Sure, the interceptions haven't be there. Part of that is QB's not throwing on him anymore and part of it is that interceptions are always limited in man coverage. He's still breaking up passes that come his way at a good rate and has become a better player against the run.

Haden may have only played 11 games in 2012, but I don't think it's a stretch to say he's already among the best at his position. In their review of the top 10 corners in the last 5 years, Pro Football Focus had Haden 3rd, despite only playing for 3 years. That's the kind of value he's been able to produce since being in the league and is one of many reasons why we think he'll have a fantastic 2013. Unless the curse of Cleveland gets him of course... (TD)

24. Vince Wilfork, DT, New England Patriots (TD = 23, PG = 17, GS = 43)
2012 Ranking: 25

In a league filled with veritable man-mountains, few stand out on the field as much as the player in the #75 Patriots jersey, not just for his eye-catching size, but for the utterly dominant play he brings snap after snap. Bill Belichick is known for deploying all manner of defensive fronts and coverages, from fundamentally sound base looks to unconventional packages that combine unexpected zones behind exotic blitzes while mixing two-gap and one-gap principles in the same play - and the primary factor that enables Belichick to have such a varied defensive playbook is one Vincent Lamar Wilfork.

traingingcamp7-27 076
P: Karen Cardoza
A first-round pick out of Miami in 2004, Wilfork became a full-time starter in his second season and has been a wrecking ball in the middle of the Pats' defensive line ever since. Optimistically listed at 325 pounds, Wilfork has all the traits of a traditional 3-4 nose tackle, controlling both 'A' gaps simultaneously while guaranteeing the attention of at least two, if not three offensive linemen on each play, freeing up the linebackers behind him to make the play. Yet, Wilfork is so much more than just a huge gap-plugging nose tackle; in 2010, Wilfork began to see increasing time at defensive end in the three-man front, showing the smarts and the speed and agility to set the edge and maintain outside contain in run defense, a big ask for a guy of his size - most NFL running backs have the speed advantage to get outside of such a large man - but his impressive speed for his size made him just as dangerous in this role as he was as that anchoring nose tackle.

Yet it was the 2011 season that really brought out the versatility that Wilfork possesses, as Belichick switched from a 3-4 to a 4-3, and has stuck with the alignment as his base defense since. The switch has given Wilfork a new lease of life, as he has had arguably his two best seasons in a four-front, racking up the two highest sack totals of his career - a still seemingly paltry 6.5 sacks over the two seasons, but that's more a sign of the 1-tech position he generally mans than of anything else. Yet, Wilfork does not just play the 1-tech as you might expect - he has the versatility to be played as a three-tech, and has performed just a good a job in this role, traditionally reserved for backfield-penetrators rather than gap-stuffers, as in the other many positions he has manned for the Patriots defense. The switch has seen him able to focus more on personally effecting the play instead of merely freeing up his teammates to do so - signified by the first interceptions of his career in 2011, and setting a personal best in forced fumbles and fumble recoveries in 2012. If anything, Wilfork is getting even better playing in this new front, as, after making the Associated Press All-Pro second team four times over his pro career, Big Vince was named to the All-Pro first team for the very first time after his 2012 campaign, while also earning his fifth playoff berth - and after arguably his best two years in the NFL, his third in a base 4-3 should be even better yet. (GS)

23. Joe Thomas, LT, Cleveland Browns (TD = 18, PG = 10, GS = 51)
2012 Ranking: 31

It's a sad state of affairs when potentially one of the greatest offensive linemen of the decade is stuck on a godawful football team. To be a Hall of Fame consideration as an offensive lineman, you really need some help behind you; people are less inclined to see you as a true legend of the sport unless your team, or your quarterback, has taken advantage of the hours of time you've given in protection. Just look at some of the OL inductees from the past few years: Larry Allen protected Troy Aikman and opened lanes for Emmitt Smith; Willie Roaf left a dodgy QB situation in New Orleans to go and protect Trent Green in Kansas City; Randall McDaniel spent 3 years protecting Warren Moon in Minnesota.

Now look at the list of QBs that in his 6 year career Joe Thomas has protected, as pointed out by Bill Barnwell recently:

Charlie Frye, Derek Anderson, Bruce Gradkowski, Ken Dorsey, Brady Quinn, Seneca Wallace, Colt McCoy, Jake Delhomme, Thaddeus Lewis, and Brandon Weeden.

That's just mean.

Of course, not having a good QB doesn't mean you won't have success, and doesn't mean you won't end up in the HoF if you deserve it. Just look at Jonathon Ogden. Arguably the best OT of all time, certainly of the last 20 years, and he (and a pretty good defense) took Trent Dilfer to Super Bowl glory.

The problem for Joe Thomas is that Brandon Weeden probably isn't even Trent Dilfer, let alone Trent Green or Troy Aikman. And that Cleveland D isn't in the same conversation as the Ravens D that won Super Bowl XXXV.

There's every possibility that Joe Thomas can be every bit as great an OT as the legends of Ogden/Pace/Munoz etc., but whether anyone will ever be able to fully appreciate him stuck on a sinking Browns ship is another matter entirely. (PG)

22. Rob Gronkowski, TE, New England Patriots (TD = 12, PG = 20, GS = 39)
2012 Ranking: 9

Rob Gronkowski had another phenomenal year in 2012, averaging 5 catches, 72 yards and a touchdown per game. The problem was that he only played 11 games after breaking his forearm on an extra point against the Indianapolis Colts. Gronk would play against Miami in the final regular season game before re-breaking his arm in the playoffs. What has happened since then has been a horror-show.

After looking so indestructible throughout his career with the Patriots, Gronkowski's struggled all off-season with injury, going through multiple surgeries on his forearm to plate the bone after it struggled to heal, then to clear up an infection and re-plate it. Gronk then had to have back surgery to fix a disc problem. As a result he will miss all of training camp and potentially the first 6 weeks of the season, which includes big games against Atlanta and New Orleans.

With all the receiver turnover there's been in New England this off-season a healthy Gronkowski would have been an even bigger part of the Patriots offense than previously. Now? Well now we all sit and hope that one of the most entertaining players to hit the NFL in recent times can be the same guy he was before. Gronkowski's career numbers are truly remarkable, even for someone working with one of the best quarterbacks of all time: 187 catches at 14.2 yards a pop, 39 total touchdowns in 43 games. Given Gronkowski's blocking prowess it's not a stretch to make Tony Gonzalez comparisons. The on-going injury issues may mean he doesn't play into his late 30's like Gonzalez, but if he can come back at even 80% the player he was then New England will still have the best tight end in the NFL today. (TD) 

21. A.J. Green, WR, Cincinnati Bengals (TD = 19, PG = 35, GS = 15)
2012 Ranking: --

The scouting reports leading up to the 2011 draft made promises that seemed impossible to be matched: the best receiving prospect since Calvin Johnson, a Larry Fitzgerald-type who you can build an entire offense around, the second coming of Randy Moss. The chatter surrounding Adriel Jeremiah Green was unanimous in its gushing praise on the former Georgia Bulldog, his status cemented by being drafted to the Cincinnati Bengals with the fourth-overall pick. With such high expectations, could Green ever realistically live up to hype?

Absolutely he could.

AJ Green
P: CritiquesCasinosEnlgine
There is no coincidence that Green's first two seasons in the league happened to be the Bengals' first back-to-back playoff appearances since the 1981/82 seasons - the only other occasion in franchise history the team secured consecutive postseason berths. Green has simply been a monster in his first two seasons, and though he lacks true "burner" speed, he's no slouch at a sub-4.5 40 time, and though he improved his hands between his first and second years, he has been guilty of dropping balls once in a while - but he brings every other intangible you'd want out of a wide receiver. He has the height to contest every jump ball at 6'4", his route running is sharp and polished, and above all, he possesses phenomenal body control, being able to twist his torso to make awkward grabs while still contorting his body enough to keep his toes inbound.

Over and above describing what he brings to the table with his skills, you cannot overstate just what he's meant to the Bengals organisation, becoming just the third receiver in team history to make the Pro Bowl in his first two seasons as a pro, alongside Isaac Curtis and Cris Collinsworth; more importantly, he may be the single biggest factor on the Bengals' offense that helped them make the playoffs in each of the past two years, leading the team in touchdowns in both his seasons while accounting for an astonishing 37% of the team's receiving TDs over the past two years. You need only see the reaction of his coaches to him spraining a knee in practice camp to know how much huge an impact he's had on this team.

He's only getting better, too; after a rookie season that saw him become the first receiver in nine years to make the Pro Bowl in their first year, he sophomore campaign saw him named to the All-Pro second team, while catching 32 more balls, making just shy of 300 more yards, and grabbinb four more touchdowns than he did in his rookie season. Now with a third year under the same offensive co-ordinator with the same quarterback, Green should have an even better season in 2013, especially with the addition of a second tight end in rookie Tyler Eifert and the seeming emergence of Mohammed Sanu creating new receiving threats for Andy Dalton to prevent teams from overloading coverage towards Green. With his knee sprain not expected to linger into the season, 2013 might well be the season where AJ Green is no longer seen as a potential Calvin Johnson or Larry Fitzgerald, but their equal. (GS)

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