By Nick Shook
Read full post on NFL.com
Welcome back to another week of Top 100 rankings. This week, we tackle spots 80 to 71, and close to a third come from one team, which might surprise some folks.
Tennessee’s cornerstone tackle, reliable tight end and edge-rushing terror are scattered in this group of players. Are the Titans, who finished a game out of a wild-card spot and on the wrong side of a divisional tiebreaker in 2016, on the verge of becoming a true contender in the AFC? Their peers’ respect for them would lead some to believe so.
That and more below, where we start with a guy known as Minitron …
71. Julian Edelman – WR, Patriots
The former Kent State quarterback took his legend into his own hands in Super Bowl LI, making a catch that was almost scientifically impossible to preserve an important drive late in New England’s comeback. Oh, and the wideout caught 98 passes for 1,106 yards and three touchdowns. The next closest target in New England’s receiving corps caught 60 passes. Ah, how sweet it is to run routes for Tom Brady.
72. Taylor Lewan – OT, Titans
He’s nasty, he’s gritty, he’s a mover of mass with an occasional mustache. He’s the left tackle for the Exotic Smashmouth offense, and he’s in the Top 100 for the first time. Lewan’s peers consider him among the league’s best after just three seasons, and it seems as though the sky is the limit for the franchise tackle.
73. Philip Rivers – QB, Chargers
Rivers is nearing the twilight of his career, but he’s been about as reliable as they come. A quick look at his stats shows yet another 4,000-plus-yard season and 33 touchdowns, but a career-high in interceptions with 21, and the lowest completion percentage (60.4) since his 2007 campaign. Honestly — outside of that crushing pick-six he threw to Kiko Alonso against Miami in 2016 — we’re nitpicking here. The passer from N.C. State might not be happy about his new commute up I-5, but the Chargers are surely glad to have him, even after a 27-place fall in the top 100.
74. Harrison Smith – S, Vikings
Smith’s reputation is about as rock-solid as they come in league circles. The proof: The safety only moved down one place in the top 100, even after the Vikings trudged through the second half of the season to finish 8-8. Smith patrols the defensive backfield and is always accounted for by opposing offenses. Despite not recording an interception, Smith finished with 91 tackles, two sacks and two passes defensed in 14 games in 2016. Opponents know not to test him, and the Vikings knew it would be in their best interest to keep him, extending Smith before the 2016 season.
75. Delanie Walker – TE, Titans
I personally love an offense that utilizes athletic tight ends, and after three seasons with the Titans, I’m sure Walker would agree. A move from the Bay to the country music capital of the world opened up a whole new world of possibilities for Walker back in 2014, and with the arrival of a green rookie in Marcus Mariota a year later, Walker has seen his best two seasons in the NFL. The tight end recorded 94 catches for 1,088 yards and six touchdowns in 2015, and despite a 29-catch drop-off in 2016, still racked up 800 yards and seven scores. His fellow NFLers showed respect for his sustained success later in his career, launching the 32-year-old up seven positions from 82 to 75.
76. Justin Houston – OLB, Chiefs
Houston was among the league’s rising and fear-inducing edge rushers in 2014, but injuries have started to take their toll, limiting the linebacker to 16 games total over the last two seasons. We’re blaming Houston’s 50-position fall purely on injuries, because when Houston is healthy, he is an absolute menace off the edge. Just ask Donald Stephenson and Ty Sambrailo how they fared against Houston in Week 12 of 2016. Considering he’s only 28 years old, we expect Houston to at least be back inside the 50s come this time next season.
77. Ha Ha Clinton-Dix – S, Packers
It was a peculiar season for Green Bay’s secondary, but that didn’t tarnish the reputation of Ha Ha Clinton-Dix, who only seems to be getting better with time. It’s his first entry in the top 100, and he’ll be looking at a long-term deal in the near future as he plays out years four and five of his rookie deal.
78. Brian Orakpo – OLB, Titans
Orakpo has owned a reputation as a fairly reliable edge rusher since entering the league with 11 sacks (still his career high) in his rookie season of 2009, but surprisingly, this is his first time on the list. The linebacker turns 31 on July 31, but he posted 10.5 sacks in 2016 to go along with 46 tackles as part of a Titans defense that finished tied for sixth in the league in sacks with 40. Just to recap: more than one-fourth of the team’s sacks came from just Orakpo. Injury struggles make sense in keeping this guy off the list, but even then, with 57.5 career sacks, it seems unfair he’s just now making it at No. 78.
79. Sean Lee – LB, Cowboys
If 2016 was the regular season of the Cowboys, it was the sweetest for Lee. After battling through various health issues in 2013 and 2014, Lee posted his second straight season of at least 14 games played and 128 or more tackles, racking up 145 and finishing as a first-team All Pro. Riding the momentum wave, he finds himself in the top 100 for the first time. NFL.com’s Ike Taylor had Lee at 82, but the players were just a little more complimentary, ranking him at 79.
80. LeGarrette Blount – RB, Patriots
Blount might be without a team, but he’s not without respect among his peers. The bulldozing running back hit a career high in carries (299), yards (1,161) and an eye-popping 18 touchdowns for the Patriots in 2016, good for his first entry in the top 100 at No. 80. At age 30, however, Blount is in a unique position. He’s not a bonafide feature back for most teams, but also can’t just be used in spots. We’ll wait to see where he lands, but one thing is for sure: His opponents are paying attention when Blount is in the backfield.