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Tuesday, 3 September 2013

TPL100 2013: The Top 10

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

So, after weeks of counting down our list of the one hundred best players in the NFL for the 2013 season, we come to the final leg: the top ten. As always, let us know what you think not just of these ten names, but the whole list, on Twitter, Facebook or e-mail.

The best ten players in the NFL are revealed after the jump...

10. Joe Staley, LT, San Francisco 49ers (TD = 26, PG = 5, GS = 16)
2012 Ranking: 55

We kick off the final ten names  in the 2013 TPL100 with the finest offensive lineman plying his trade on the field today - the 49ers' Joe Staley. Recruited to Central Michigan out of high school as a tight end, Staley never lost the quick feet (or the soft hands) of the position when he bulked up to play offensive line in college - no doubt one of the major reasons he's been so good at the NFL level. In fact, there's no coincidence that the top-ranked offensive linemen in both this and last year's (the Eagles' Jason Peters) TPL100 countdowns are former tight ends converted to offensive tackles. After playing all sixteen games of his rookie campaign at right tackle, the former first-rounder was switched permanently to left tackle in 2008, where the combination of the athleticism and, more importantly, footwork of a tight end with the strength of an offensive lineman let Staley shine.

NFL @ Wembley Oct 2010
P: Mark Botham
The biggest thing that stands out when you watch Staley is his technique. With a good center of gravity, Staley utilises his natural agility to out-manoeuvre oncoming defensive linemen in run-blocking, putting him in good position to exercise leverage in inside zone and drive blocking, or to get a solid seal in outside zone blocking, following up his footwork with ideal hand placement to all but nullify opposing players in the run game - the fact that the 49ers were ranked by Football Outsiders as first in the league when running around the left end speaks to how dominant Staley is in the outside zone game. More than anything, though, its in pass protection that his footwork really impresses. Many defensive ends use speed moves around the outside as their go-to pass-rush technique - but Staley's quick, choppy feet keeps him perfectly mirroring defenders attempting to get around the edge, combined with that perfect hands technique that sees him able to counter rips and swims with ease while preventing the longer-armed pass rusher from being able to use their natural length to create and advantage. Likewise, his quick feet make him very hard to beat on inside fakes - where a defender sets his shoulders as if he's attempting to beat the tackle around the edge, before cutting inside of the lineman - as his agility means he very, very rarely over-commits to the outside.

If Staley's rare agility for a lineman wasn't enough, it's his ability to adapt on the fly that has made him a stalwart Pro-Bowls and All-Pro teams the past two years, in particular how there was no drop-off in his play when the team brought in such a radically different package of plays when Colin Kaepernick took over the starting spot. Staley is not only mentally sharp enough to always ensure he leaves the reads unblocked - not as easy a task as you may think, as leaving defensive ends unblocked is against every lineman's natural instinct initially - but is able to quickly dissect a play and move up swiftly the second level to find and block the most dangerous man - a major reason the 49ers offensive line was also reckoned by Football Outsiders to be the best in the NFL when it comes to blocking at the second level. Between his quick feet, impeccable technique and his sharp football mind, Joe Staley possess the complete package when it comes to what every team looks for in their left tackle, making him truly worthy of being named our best offensive linemen for 2013. (GS)

9. Haloti Ngata, DT, Baltimore Ravens (TD = 15, PG = 7, GS = 17)
2012 Ranking: 6

He has the size. He has the power. He has the dominance. And now he has a ring.

A two sport athlete... P: Keith Allison
If there's one person on that Ravens team that deserved to win a Super Bowl, it's Haloti Ngata. Ray Lewis already had one, Joe Flacco and Ray Rice are still young. Ok, I'll give you Ed Reed, but still.

Not only has he been a destructive force in the NFL for 7 years, but Ngata has been a massive reason that the likes of Lewis and Terrell Suggs have been able to play to the level they've achieved for so long, eating up blockers on the line of scrimmage allowing the backers behind him to pick up runners or attack the outside edge. Even when double-teamed, Ngata is never out of the play, able to use his 6'4 340lb frame to split gaps and shut down rushing attacks anywhere from a 5-tech to a heads-up NT on the defensive front line. He may not be much of a speed rusher himself, but for each of the last 3 years Ngata has recorded 5+ sacks, taking his career total to 22.

With Lewis and Reed now gone from the Ravens defensive lineup, Ngata is one of the elder statesmen at 29, and along with Suggs will be forced to step in to the leadership roles his former teammates have vacated. Ngata himself admits he'll have to work hard to be more vocal in the huddle and the locker room to help the Ravens younger D along, but if those guys take Ngata's play as an example to lead by, they'll do just fine. (PG)

8. Peyton Manning, QB, Denver Broncos (TD = 8, PG = 11, GS = 4)
2012 Ranking: 66

This time last year there was all manner of speculation about how good Peyton would be after missing all of 2011 and having multiple neck surgeries. Well, he started off shaky but soon got back to his old ways with a dominant regular season (13-3 record with 4,659 yards with 37 TD's and 11 INT's) before playing poorly in his only playoff appearance of the year; a 38-35 loss to Baltimore. Like I said, classic Peyton...

This year there are far fewer worries, we know he's still got the super-quick release and can still see what defenses are going to do before they've done a thing. What we do have some concerns about is his ability to throw the deep ball. At the start of the season it was all over the place, particularly in a 3 interception loss to Atlanta in week 2. Then in the playoffs, once the weather got cold and the season had taken it's toll on him, Peyton didn't once throw a single seam or go route, which quickly allowed Baltimore to collapse their defense and crowd the line of scrimmage. 

So if Peyton's arm strength and down-field game truly is gone then why is he so high? Well the Broncos went out and got him the best present possible for a QB who's going to need to work underneath more: Wes Welker. 

Adding Welker to an already dangerous receiver pair of Demaryius Thomas and Eric Decker is just unfair to the other AFC West defenses and will allow Manning to do almost anything he wants to on offense.

This year the Broncos are the clear favourites in the AFC and likely to win at least 12 games again, and Peyton is the main reason why. At 37 he's still hungry for that elusive second Super Bowl ring, and just maybe 2013 will be his year. (TD)

7. Patrick Willis, ILB, San Francisco 49ers (TD = 7, PG = 6, GS = 9)
2012 Ranking: 4

P: Jason Ku

Our first consensus top 10 player of 2013, and our #1 ranked linebacker in the NFL, is 49ers MLB Pat Willis.

Alongside his partner in crime, #34 in the TPL100 Navorro Bowman, Willis is the field general of undoubtedly the best inside linebacking corps in the league, combining smarts, speed, power and leadership. Given the nickname "Bam-Bam" by Chad Johnson/Ochocinco/Johnson, Willis' career to date has been defined by his outstanding run stopping and tackling ability. In his rookie year he led the league in combined tackles ("officially" 174, but the 9ers credited him with 200+), and over his 6 year career has amassed 812 - an average of 135 a season. Unlike so much of the NFL, Willis is unwaveringly consistent in his dominance, to such an extent than he has been voted to the Pro Bowl and All-Pro 1st or 2nd team every single year of his pro career, even in 2011 when he missed almost 4 games after injuring his hamstring vs the Rams in week 13. In only 12 full games he still recorded 97 tackles, and a career high 4 forced fumbles.

With the emergence of Bowman over the past 3 seasons, taking over from Willis as the 49ers leading tackler, the amount of praise Willis receives always seems to be credited as a joint effort between the two. Even I brought Bowman up a paragraph ago. But don't let this split praise fool you. Yes, both are outstanding players, and each makes the other better, but Bowman has benefited from playing his entire career alongside Patrick Willis. When Willis arrived he was playing with Derek Smith, Tully Banta-Cain and Parys Haralson, and still played to the highest level in the NFL.

Quite simply, Willis is awesome, no matter who he plays alongside, or who the opposition is. Running backs who've regularly faced him, like Steven Jackson and Marshawn Lynch, single him out as the best. That's good enough for me. (PG) 

6. Drew Brees, QB, New Orleans Saints (TD = 4, PG = 8, GS = 6)
2012 Ranking: 3

It's an old adage - 'the quarterback is the leader of the team' - but it may never have been truer, though, than it was for Drew Brees in 2012. Generally, the quarterback-as-leader refers only to matters between the hashmarks, and even then, typically under the instruction of the coaching staff. The quarterback may be the face of a franchise when it comes to the media, to the fans, to the marketing departments - but a team lives or dies by its head coach. Except, of course, when that head coach is forbidden from having any contact with the team due to his involvement in covering up their old defensive co-ordinator's bounty scheme.

Sure, Aaron Kromer and Joe Vitt nominally split head coaching duties in Sean Payton's absence, but there's no question that it was on Brees' shoulders that the franchise stood last season; the connection between Payton and Brees is almost folkloric, and so without Payton, the architect of the team's offense, it was Brees who had to fill that Payton-shaped hole when it came to gameplanning the offense.

Eyes down field
P: Asim Bharwani
So how did Brees do without Payton's direction over the intercom? In some aspects, Payton's absence seemed to be notable - Brees' 63% completion rate was the lowest since 2003, while he also lead the NFL in interceptions for the first time in his career (though in fairness, it was still three picks fewer than his 2010 season). In fact, across the board, Brees' statistics were down; yet, it could hardly be considered a bad year. For the third time in his career, Brees passed for over 5000 yards, claiming the fourth title of passing yardage leader of his career; likewise, his 43 touchdowns were the best in the league (a second-highest career total after last year's 46 TDs), again the fourth time he has led the league in that category. The team as a whole seemed to suffer massively from the absence of Payton's leadership and direction - evidenced by the 2012 Saints being able to claim the dubious honour of "worst defense in NFL history", finishing with a losing record for the first time since 2007 - but Brees as an individual had statistically one of the best years of his career, showing the ability to lead the offense as well as Payton had.

Now with Payton back in the fold, Brees is freed from having to have the entire weight of the organisation on his shoulders. If he could put up such an impressive season while having to fill some of the role of head coach, it's scary to think what Brees can get back to achieving now that he can put all his focus simply into scoring touchdowns and winning games. Call it a hunch, but with his season-for-the-ages in 2011, followed by another statistically league-leading season in 2012, Drew Brees' 2013 campaign -with a rejuvenated Sean Payton out for revenge in tow - might be his best yet. (GS)

5. JJ Watt, DE, Houston Texans (TD = 6, PG = 9, GS = 3)
2012 Ranking: --

Say hello to the reigning defensive player of the year and our highest ranked defender. Justin James Watt.

P: Karen
I was the only one to rank JJ Watt last year, putting him at 84 overall, which wasn't enough for him to break into our top 100. This year? Well let's just say I didn't have to bang the table too much to convince the others that Watt belongs.

20.5 sacks from the 3-4 DE position is startling enough, but when you look deeper Watt's impact on the game is simply staggering. The best place to find these extra stats is on footballoutsiders.com, who show that Watt's season was truly historic. He smashed the record for defeats (turnovers, tackles for loss or tackles/passes defended that prevent 3rd or 4th down conversion) with 56, 11 more than Ray Lewis' previous record and 17 more than Von Miller had. The next best defensive lineman for single season defeats is Robert Porcher with 37 in 1997. Watt was impacting games at a better rate than hall of fame linebackers from a position that is traditionally all about eating up blocks and allowing others to make plays.

Just to show it's not only footballoutsiders who have Watt with an All-World season in 2012, Advanced NFL Stats have Watt making 39 tackles for a loss, the next best from a defensive lineman? Geno Atkins with 18. He averaged a tackle for a loss against the run. It was simply an unbelievable season.

So what makes Watt so successful? It all starts with an incredible burst off the ball. His explosiveness has been well documented with his now legendary box jumps, but combine that with fast hands and outstanding play recognition and you have an almost unblockable combination. And it's not just inside the tackles that Watt makes a living, he's got the energy, speed and ability to get outside and make plays. From this play against Tennessee where he fights across two blockers and creates a turnover, then there's the play in a regular season beat-down by the Patriots; in the 4th quarter down 28-7 Watt chases down Danny Woodhead from behind and punches the football loose only for it to wind up being recovered by the Patriots in the endzone. These kind of plays speak volumes about the effort and desire Watt puts into every snap. And on the rare occasions that he can't get to the QB Watt works his way into passing lanes and puts that insane vertical to good use in batting passes.

Can he repeat in 2013? It's unlikely that we'll see a sack total that high again, but I wouldn't be at all surprised if his QB hits & hurries total (54!) stays near the astronomical level it was in 2012. He's simply too fast and powerful for the majority of linemen to handle. Oh, and did I mention that Watt was hurt all year?

"All the ligaments in [my elbow] were torn, they were all gone, so they had to have time to recover and regroup. So obviously I wasn't at full strength."

Not at full strength... If this isn't full strength then offensive linemen should run and hide. (TD)

4. Calvin Johnson, WR, Detroit Lions (TD = 5, PG = 3, GS = 5)
2012 Ranking: 5

Last year, when Calvin Johnson was revealed as the top-ranking wide receiver in the TPL100, we called him "arguably the most ridiculous physical specimen in the league", while also stating that he "might one day genuinely challenge for the greatest [receiver] of all time".

One year on, and Calvin Johnson hasn't supplanted Jerry Rice yet - but breaking Rice's single-season record for receiving yards was definitely a step in that direction.

Everything we wrote about Calvin Johnson remains true: there is just no-one in the league who can boast his combination of size, speed and strength. What is perhaps more impressive is that he broke Rice's single-season yardage record - and fell just 46 yards of crossing the 2,000-yard threshold - despite playing with a quarterback who seemed to regress from the previous season. It was Matthew Stafford's seeming regression that can be held responsible for the one area where Johnson notably under-performed in 2013: touchdowns. Yes, Johnson caught but five touchdowns in 2013, a number you might expect from an above-average #2 wideout in an aerial-heavy offense - not what you'd expect from the best receiver in the league; in fact, his five TDs tied for 40th in the league. The number makes more sense, however, considered in the context of Matthew Stafford throwing touchdowns on just 2.8% of his passes - for reference, the only starting quarterbacks to have a lower touchdown percentage were three rookies and Matt Cassell.

Still, those five touchdowns need to be explained, because that statistic stands out like a sore thumb when compared to the fact that Johnson not only broke Rice's record (naturally leading the league in receiving yards per game as a result), but also led the league for the first time his career in receptions - marking a new career high with 122, his first triple-figure reception season, while also setting a new career high for receptions-per-game with 7.6. The stats are even more striking when compared with his team mates: no other Lions receiver even reached the 600-yard mark - Johnson's yardage was almost three and half times more than the second-leading receiver on the team, Brandon Pettigrew with 567 yards; Nate Burleson was second on the team in receptions-per-game with 4.5, over three catches less a contest than Johnson. All of a sudden, Megatron's 2012 campaign seems all the more remarkable: with no other viable consistent threats on offense, defenses could plan their entire game focusing only on #81 - and yet Calvin Johnson still managed to put up more receiving yards than any other NFL player in history, despite arguably facing more defensive attention than any other wideout.

In 2013, Calvin Johnson might have an even better season: the Lions face five of the ten worst passing defenses in 2012, including three of the worst five - and that doesn't include the Philadelphia Eagles, who despite not being among the league's worst for passing yardage conceded, gave up more touchdowns through the air than any other NFL defense. The matchups favour Johnson - and his production should be even further boosted by the addition of Reggie Bush, giving the Lions a legitimate offensive threat outside of Calvin Johnson for the first time in a long time, if not ever. If 2012 saw Calvin Johnson break Jerry Rice's single-season receiving record against a tougher schedule with a less talented team, there's no telling what 2013 might bring for the best receiver since the Rice himself. (GS)

3. Adrian Peterson, RB, Minnesota Vikings (TD = 3, PG = 2, GS = 7)
2012 Ranking: 14

Not in their wildest dreams could Vikings fans have seen this coming. Rushing for 2,000 yards in a season is a massive achievement on it's own, but doing it after ripping your knee to shreds 9 months before the season starts, and at 6.0 yards per carry? That is simply ridiculous.

P: Wikimedia Commons
As stated in our run-down of the best O-Lines in 2013 Peterson did have a bit of help, but he averaged 3.92 yards after contact as well as leading the league in missed tackles. Which is just craziness.

Then there's the fact that there was absolutely no fear for defenses in packing the box to stop him and letting Christian Ponder take his chances in single coverage on the outside. Peterson's 2012 was quite simply his best single season in a career where he went at 5.6 yards per carry as a rookie and punched in 18 touchdowns in 2009. Which is why there were absolutely no questions raised when Peterson was named the AP's Most Valuable Player, the first non-quarterback to win the award since LaDanian Tomlinson's record-breaking 2006.

Moving ahead into 2013, Adrian Peterson has stated his aim is 2,500 rushing yards. That outrageous total would need an extra 69 carries on his 2012 total if he were to repeat his 6.0 ypc, or a massive 500 carries at his career average of 5.0 ypc. That's just not going to happen. I don't care how terrible your quarterback is, it would be totally irresponsible for the Vikings to hand the ball off to AP 31 times a game.

So what is a reasonable expectation for Peterson in 2013? He's proven to be super-human so another 2,000 yard season isn't impossible. The Vikings schedule features several tough defenses, and just totting up his career yards per game against the 2013 schedule puts him at 1,623 yards, which would be an impressive total but probably not enough to get the Vikings back to the playoffs unless they get a big improvement from their passing game. (TD)

2. Aaron Rodgers, QB, Green Bay Packers (TD = 1, PG = 4, GS = 1)
2012 Ranking: 1

He claimed his crown as the top-ranked player in the TPL100 last year, but our 2013 list sees Aaron Rodgers fall off the top spot and tumble all the way down to.... #2. You can read below Phil's reason for ranking another quarter back over Rodgers - the vote responsible for Rodgers coming in second - but two of the three of us still had Aaron Rodgers as the best player in the NFL, and it's not hard to see why.

It must be admitted that Aaron Rodgers' 2012 campaign was not quite as good as the preceding year - but that speaks more to how astounding Rodgers was in 2011 than anything else. Rodgers still managed to lead the league in touchdown percentage last year, as well as in quarterback rating, while coming third in interception percentage. Rodgers' efficiency is simply lethal, able to dissect the game as well as the "old guard" of elite quarterbacks of Brady, Brees and Manning, but with the ability to use his feet to extend plays better than those three to find open throwing lanes that even other elite quarterbacks would not be in position to find. It's hard to force Rodgers to make a mistake, and the Packers can often beat other teams purely due to how rarely they give opposing defenses and opportunity to make a play on the ball.

Rodgers' talent shines even brighter when looking at the rest of the team surrounding him: the defense, once terrifying under Dom Capers' multiple zone blitzes, has been figured out enough by offenses around the league that they don't pose the threat they once did. On his own side of the ball, it's been well-chronicled how pitiful, almost non-existent the Packers' run game has been, putting all the defensive focus on Rodgers -and he's not being helped either by a terrible offensive line, one that led him to being the most-sacked quarterback in the NFL for the second time in his career.

Yet, despite all those handicaps, Rodgers is still able to perform utter magic with the ball in his hands, combining a finely-tuned football mind, quick release and clever feet in the pocket (and out of it), and German-levels of efficiency - and he's now armed with what appears to be a legitimate running game, too. Rodgers' talent and skillset is simply awe-inspiring - and at 29, is still growing as a quarterback, a fact which might be scariest of all. (GS)

1. Tom Brady, QB, New England Patriots (TD = 2, PG = 1, GS = 2)
2012 Ranking: 2  

P: Wiki Commons
Tom Terrific jumps above his arch rival in a top 2 position swap to claim the #1 overall spot in the TPL100 ranking for 2013. Last year, Tom lost out on the top spot to Aaron Rodgers, and would've done so again this year if it weren't for me personally ranking Tom at 1. So let me explain my reasoning.

First of all, it's not that Brady was any better in 2013 than he was in 2012, or 2011, or 2010. He recorded over 30 TD passes for the third time in three years, threw only 8 INTs despite attempting 600+ passes, and even added a career high 4 rushing TDs without losing a fumble. But those are the numbers we all expect of Tom.

Compare his numbers to Rodgers, who threw 5 more TDs and the same number of INTs, and Brady doesn't leap out as better. In yardage, Brady was 4th - even behind Tony Romo. In completion percentage (63.0) he was 11th! Philip Rivers was higher (64.1)! So he didn't have a statistical super season...

Is it that I just love Brady? Hell no. He beat my Rams in Super Bowl XXXVI with nefarious film work. He destroyed my Rams in 2012 at Wembley Stadium when I finally got to see my team play live for the first time. He wears Uggs, shoes clearly designed for women only. I really dislike Tom Brady, yet still he's my choice for #1.

Now think about Brady in the crunch. At the back end of the regular season when you're battling for playoff spots and bye weeks, in the Wild Card and Divisional Rounds when one mistake could mean curtains, and in the Super Bowl, when it's all or nothing. 2013 saw Brady lead the Patriots to 12-4 and their 10th divisional title with him at the helm. 10th. That's incredible. They scored 557 points, making the Patriots offense the only team to have ever scored 500+ points in a season 4 times. Brady was QB for all of them. In the Divisional Round of the playoffs, Brady led his team to victory over the much fancied Houston Texans, giving Tom his 17th career playoff win, making him the winningest playoff QB in history. He's won 5 AFC Championships, and 3 Super Bowls. If it weren't for David Tyree's helmet and Eli Manning's Super Bowl bump, he might have a ring for every finger on his throwing hand. Those are statistics that scream #1 to me. As for Rodgers, he has one ring, but aside from that inspired season of 2010 the Packers have only ever won one game with him under centre. He's a great QB, and in years to come people will look back on him as a great, but if you want me to put my trust in one person to win me a game, a divisional title, or a Super Bowl ring, Brady is the unquestioned number one. And I don't even like him. (PG)

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