Less than a week ago training camps opened for business around the country It’s time for players to grind away in two-a-day practices, sweltering in their freshly minted armor, scorched by the summer heat….Well, it used to be time for that.
Now? Now it’s just time for players to run routes and toss passes in their shorts and jerseys, riding stationary bikes, and posing for pictures…for better or worse. But the opening of camp also marks open season for NFL prognosticating, evaluating, and bloviating. I’ll be doing all three of these over the next several weeks. So let us go once more into the breech dear friends!
As the season gets closer, and we can better take into consideration injuries, trades, and cuts, I’ll be taking a look at each teams schedule to come up with a realistic prediction of where each team may finish in the standings.
But before we focus on how well the teams may fair, I think it’s important to mark the best players of the game for the 2012 season.
One final note before we get to the lists, guys coming into the season who should probably be ranked, but have significant injuries, will not be ranked – Adrian Peterson, Terrell Suggs, Jason Peters, I’m looking at you. And Peyton Manning? He’s either a top 5 player or a top 500 player. There’s way too much volatility there to rank him as a top 25 player for 2012.
With that out of the way, let’s get down to the list!
The most underrated position in the NFL is the center. Not only is he relegated to ‘just a lineman’ status, he’s not even the most highly touted of the lineman positions. And yet, he’s second in command of the offense. The left tackle may be the one physically protecting the QB, but it’s the center who puts him in the right spot. Running between the tackles? You better have a center who can blow those DTs off the ball, or you’re not going anywhere but backwards.
And the best at this right now is Chris Myers in Houston. Unless you live in Houston or the 10 mile radius around Houston that aren’t Cowboys fans, you’ve probably never heard of Chris Myers, but in 2011 he was a dominant center. According to profootballfocus.com, Myers had 3 of the 10 best games by a center in 2011. Including an amazing 8.0 score against the Colts in week 1. The second highest score was a 5.9…also by Chris Myers in week 9. You know Arian Foster is a good running back, and you probably know Ben Tate is pretty good too. Yeah, well Chris Myers is a big part of both of those.
Atkins, along with partner in crime Domata Peko, were a big reason the Bengals were able to make the playoffs last year. Atkins had 10 sacks, 11 tackles for loss, 2 Forced Fumbles, and 16 QB hits. Peko is the anchor in the line to take up space, and Atkins is the wrecking ball. Seems like he’s done an excellent job, and going into his third year in the NFL should only get better.
23.Tamba Hali, DE, Kansas City Chiefs
Speed. Power. Relentlessness. As a Denver Broncos fan, Tamba Hali scares the crap out of me. After starting slow his first few seasons, Hali has improved each of the last 3 years. Hali can play the run. He can bloody the passer. He’s coming into the prime of his career. Hali,Derrick Johnson, and Glenn Dorsey are going to make Kansas City a fearsome front seven in 2012.
22. Nnamdi Asomugha, CB, Philadelphia Eagles
Nnamdi was not the 24th best player in the NFL last year. Not even close. That can be attributed to a lot of things though, from the change in scenery, to the new teammates, to the mistakes made by Eagles’ defensive coaches in putting Nnamdi in a zone, when he’s so much more comfortable in man coverages. This year it seems Philadelphia will be playing more to Asomugha’s coverage strengths, while still allowing him to roam the field. That, plus an overall improvement of the Philadelphia defense, should allows Asomugha to have a nice rebound season, and reach the levels he’s truly capable of again in 2012.
21. Cam Newton, QB, Carolina Panthers
It’s almost impossible that Newton will repeat the awesome run of games he had in his rookie season. 14 rushing touchdowns? Unlikely (Mike Tolbertt’s going to hurt that.) 4,051 passing yards? I’m not sure how. 2012 Cam Newton will not put up better stats than 2011 Cam Newton. Which is a testament to just how much talent I think Cam Newton has. Last year, he was a top 10 talent in the NFL in terms of stats. This year, I think he’ll still manage the top 25. The key to Newton’s season is going to be keeping his turnovers down. If he can do that, 3,500 yards passing, and 35 total TDs is certainly doable.
20. Von Miller, OLB, Denver Broncos
Miller had a typical rookie season last year. A great first 12 weeks of the season, and then he hit the rookie wall. With no more rookie wall, Miller is posed to be the top OLB in the AFC in 2013. A relentless pass rusher, Miller is also an excellent tackler in the open field. His 20 tackles for loss in 2012 ranked 3rd for linebackers, behind only DeMarcus Ware and Terrell Suggs. Miller is at the start of a beautiful career.
19. Tony Romo, QB, Dallas Cowboys
Groundbreaking fact: Quarterbacks are important. In the NFL right now, there are three all-time great QB’s still playing in their prime (more on them much later) After that, there are several QBs in the second tier. The two who I think are closest for 4th best honors are Romo and Eli Manning.
I refuse to accept clutchiness as an acceptable way to judge athletes. Especially when the Manning is more clutch than Romo thing doesn’t really bear out statistically.
In 2011, Romo ranked 4th in Footballoutsiders DYAR, and DVOA. Manning ranked 8th and 9th respectively. Romo had 10 INTs to Mannings 17. (And Manning’s career history of turning the ball over really turns me off.)
Like I said, it’s close but I’ll take the guy who turns the ball over the least (Romo) and has the highest completion percentage (Romo again). Those stats win ballgames.
18. Ray Rice, RB, Baltimore Ravens
In a year where the running back position really lacks elite talent – unless AP can come back superhuman style- Ray Rice is one of only two running backs who will make this list. Rice makes the list because he can do more than just run the ball. Rice’s 704 receiving yards were 2nd to only Darren Sproles last year. He can block in the passing game. And – oh by the way – he was second in rushing yards last year as well. Probably most importantly, Rice has played in 16 games each of the last 3 years. The ability to stay in the game might be the greatest talent a RB can have at this point, and I trust Rice to do that more than any other RB in the league.
17. Jimmy Graham, TE, New Orleans Saints
Rob Gronkowski is not on this list. Rob Gronkowski clearly had an amazing season last year,but I feel like it could have just as easily been Aaron Hernandez (and I have a suspicion it might be in 2012.) Gronk is a very, very, good tight end. I don’t think he will be able to repeat his numbers from last year though (especially the TDs), while Jimmy Graham on the other hand may have an even better 2012 campaign. Graham already had nearly 10 passes a game thrown his way last year, and with Colston continually playing on time bombs for knees, and Meachem heading to San Diego, Graham’s chances to shine are only going to increase. Could Graham have Wes Welker levels of receptions this year? Yes. 15 TDs?
I see Graham and Gronkowski trading the best tight end in the league/ever title back and forth for about a decade. Next year? I like Graham.
Being a great safety requires both great physical and communicative skills. Polamalu continues to have both. Pretty simply, when he’s on the field good things happen for the Pittsburgh defense, when he’s not- they don’t. He’s certainly on the decline and heading down this list instead of up, but I think he’s got at least one more elite year left with the Pittsburgh D.
How does Darren Sproles run for 6+ yards per carry? Jahri Evans. That’s how. Not to mention his ability in the screen pass game – which is such a big part of what New Orleans does. His ability to get out into the open field and make those blocks, unparalleled in the NFL right now.
A fast, explosive, disciplined, offensive lineman that hasn’t missed a game in 6 years? These are the rocks championship teams are built upon.
LeSean McCoy is everything a team could want. Fast, agile, shifty, some might call him shady. A home run hitting running back like that, who can catch as well? It’s Andy Reid’s wet dream. Last year he had 4.8 yards per carry on a massive load of 273 carries. And I still don’t think he’s *broken out* just yet. I wouldn’t be shocked at all to see 2,200 yards from scrimmage and 24 TDs from McCoy in 2012. When the 2013 ‘Best Players in the NFL’ rankings come out, I expect to see McCoy in the top 10. He’s not the King of Running Backs yet, but he will be after 17 more weeks of football.
Jake Long is extremely boring. Doesn’t give up many sacks – he had 4 credited to him last year. Doesn’t take many penalties. He’s all you can hope for in an offensive tackle. Put him on the left and forget about it.
12. Patrick Peterson, CB, Arizona Cardinals
Look, I’ll be honest. I love special teams playmakers. I think one of the most undervalued additions to any team is a player who can consistently give your team an extra 10 yards in field position on every punt or kick return. That’s an incredible advantage, and at this point, I don’t know that there’s anyone I’d want returning the ball for me more than Peterson – maybe Hester, but he’s a drawback as a receiver. Peterson on the other-hand, is on his way to being a premiere CB in the league. He certainly had his struggles his rookie year- and a lot of that had to do with his coaching staff not giving him any help – but the man’s raw talent alone almost ensures he’s going to improve this year. In 2013, I think we’re calling him a top 7 player in the NFL. #12 is just a stepping stone.
11. Joe Thomas, LT, Cleveland Browns
Thomas is almost a Jake Long twin, except he had a slightly better 2011. Long seems to occasionally have an off game – like his 4 penalty game against Dallas last year – whereas Thomas is as rock steady as Long in terms of blocking, and probably a better rush blocker, and manages to do it while never having a bad game penalty wise.
As I’ve grown up, I’ve come to enjoy watching players I can remember being drafted transition from hot new shit to grizzled, dedicated, veteran. And that’s exactly what we’re seeing with Fitz right now. Fitzgerald is clearly in the ‘Kevin Garnett in his last years in Minnesota’ stage of his career. His statistics the last two years have not be equal to his obvious talent. However, he can’t be blamed for having myriad of craptastic quarterbacks throwing him the ball.
The question for Fitzgerald is, how long will he have to endure being stuck in purgatory? Will the Cardinals find someone to get him the ball? Will he demand a trade? Or will he continue to slide down the list of elite players in the league, doomed to a life of watching wobbly passes sail over his head?
9. Justin Smith, DT/DE, San Francisco 49ers
Like Geno Atkins, Smith played the wrecking ball role in a top defense in the NFL last year. And Smith did an even better job at it: 9 Sacks (for a total of 63 lost yards!), 28 QB hits (tops among DTs), and 3 forced fumbles. Not only was Smith a dominant DT, but he was also versatile enough to qualify as a 2nd team all pro for his work as a Defensive End as well. That ability to shit all over the line is a real asset, and makes a great player even more valuable.
8. Patrick Willis, MLB, San Francisco 49ers
Is there anyone a running back wants to see less coming at him? The man doesn’t miss a tackle, and when he hits you – he hits you. But that’s what a middle linebacker should do. What makes Willis special is what he does above and beyond shutting down the opposing running game. Last year Willis was second in the league with 12 passes defended, and 4 forced fumbles. The way Willis is seemingly in on every play, all the time, you can’t help but think of a 2002 Ray Lewis. And Willis is only getting better. In 2012, Willis may be the best defensive player, on the best defensive team in the league, and really have his time to shine.
7. DeMarcus Ware, OLB/DE, Dallas Cowboys
I really don’t need to say much about DeMarcus Ware. His dominant 2011 stats speak for themselves. Among outside linebackers, Ware was first in sacks (19.5), sack yards (125), QBhits (28), and tackles for a loss (26). Those 19.5 sacks included 4 sacks against the Philadelphia Eagles where he chased down and crushed uber-athlete Mike Vick. The amazing thing is that 2011 dominance at his position has been consistent for most of Ware’s career. Despite being an elite pass rusher, Ware is also above average in coverage, and more than capable coming down against the rushing game. That type of multi-tool player is almost impossible to find in the NFL these days. When you play the Dallas Cowboys, you start your game plan around avoiding Ware and go from there.
6. Jared Allen, DE, Minnesota Vikings
Yeah, DeMarcus Ware plays like a freak and an animal. Jared Allen? He IS a freak and an animal. Jared Allen has sacked the QB 63 times in the past 4 seasons. That’s basically a sack a game. You can’t overestimate how valuable that is. Allen gets his sack on 2nd down, you miss on 3rd and long, you punt. An entire possession lost to Jared Allen, every game. That type of contribution goes directly to winning games.
Through 8 weeks in the 2011 season, Darrelle Revis gave up 10 catches. Catches. Not touchdowns, catches. Here’s a list of all those catches on ProFootballFocus.com.
When a website can chronicle every catch you’ve given up in detail halfway through the season, you’re the best defensive player in the league. Revis Island lives.
4. Calvin Johnson, WR, Detroit Lions
Honestly, I’m a little scared to talk about Calvin Johnson. Watching the man scares me. I have never seen anyone with his ability before. If I built a perfect receiver in Madden, I probably wouldn’t have the arrogance to give that player Calvin Johnson’s physical attributes. He is a totally unique force in the NFL. By the end of the season last year, Stafford wasn’t even aiming. I swear the plays were “Uh, Calvin, run deep and steal the ball from everyone else.”
There can be a lot of debate about who the top 10 receivers in the NFL are this year, no one has really set themselves apart, but there’s no debate. Calvin Johnson is the best WR in the league, probably since Jerry Rice’s heyday. I’ll take Johnson over 49ers TO. I’ll take Johnson over Andre Johnson. I’ll take Megatron over rookie Randy Moss. He’s here to stay.
3. Drew Brees, QB, New Orleans Saints
In just about any other year in the past 20, Drew Brees is probably first or second on a best players list. Watching him dissect defenses at a 71% completion clip, I could only think of Peyton Manning from 2005-6. There were several times last year where the opposing teams were clearly playing with the attitude of “We can’t stop the Saints from scoring, we just need to make sure we get more possessions and score every time.” This jockeying to get the ball at the end of the first half, the crushing feeling of having to put against his team. The only other player who has affected a game this much is Peyton Manning. That may not seem like much of a compliment since Peyton was doing it as recently as 2010. I consider Manning the greatest QB of all time, and Brees is every bit as good a passer as Manning.
2. Aaron Rodgers, QB, Green Bay Packers
What’s there to say about a guy like Aaron Rodgers. He’s a wet dream for a stathead like me. 69% completion percentage and an absolutely mind blowing 45 touchdowns to 6 interceptions in 2011. This sounds incredible to say, but I think Rodgers may put up even better numbers in 2012. Because the Packers were protecting so many leads, Rodgers actually finished 16th in the league in pass attempts per game. The leader in attempts on the year, Matthew Stafford, threw 160 more passes on the year. At Rodgers Attempt to TD rate of roughly 11/1 last year, that would mean an additional 14 touchdowns for Rodgers next year. Do I really think he’ll through 59 touchdowns next year? No, probably not. Would I be shocked if he did? Absolutely not.
1. Tom Brady, QB, New England Patriots
And then there’s Tom Brady. Mr. Brady has all the talent, and all the stats of Rodgers or Brees. He has the rings of Montana. As of right now he has clearly out-paced his rival in Manning. (For now.) He runs one of (the?) greatest offensive dynasty of all time. He’s a fierce competitor on the level of Jordan. I’ve tried to back up each of my picks with stats, but I feel like I don’t have to do that with Brady. He’s been the 1A best player(along with Manning) for a decade and no matter how good Brees and Rodgers may be, I’m not knocking Brady off the throne until he falls off himself.
Thanks for reading my first article on TJRSports. During the NFL season, I’ll be doing weekly NFL picks with John Canton and our pal Mike Maloney. I look forward to it very much.