By Nick Shook
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If you ever, even for a moment, think NFL players aren’t always paying attention to their counterparts, I present you with a 10-man group of selections in the Top 100 Players of 2017 that will undoubtedly prove otherwise.
In this group, we see the meteoric ascension of three of the league’s bright young stars. Well, one is just a one-position hop, but that’s because his rookie season was so good, his peers immediately took note.
We also see the re-entry of a quarterback who never really left, even if he was left out of the rankings and on the very edge of the inside of them in recent years. Our first selection below hasn’t missed a game since 2010, has had a negative TD-to-interception ratio just once in his career (his rookie season of 2009), and has thrown for more than 4,200 yards in every season from 2011-2016.
As I write this, I’m actually getting a little peeved for Matthew Stafford. He was left completely out of the Top 100 last year, and was No. 100 the year prior. We know that no position shoulders the blame more for a team than quarterback, and with the Lions going 7-9 in 2015, Stafford took the brunt of the finger-pointing. But when he was ranked 100 (after the 2014 season), he had still completed 60.3 percent of his passes and 10 more touchdowns than interceptions. Oh, and the Lions finished 11-5!
We’re glad the players gave credit where it’s due. Welcome back to the upper third of the Top 100, Matthew.
31. Matthew Stafford – QB, Lions
Continuing the above points, I like to compare the actual Top 100 with that of NFL Network’s Ike Taylor, a 12-year NFL veteran (all with the Steelers), two-time Super Bowl champion and purveyor of fancy hats who also compiles his entire Top 100 without knowing a single result from the players’ list. Ike had Matthew Stafford at No. 51, just ahead of James Winston, but makes a good point, saying Stafford showed he could carry the team sans- Megatron and with the up-and-down effort of perimeter players. For years, Stafford could rely on tossing it up to Calvin Johnson and more often than not, he’d come down with it. But since then, Stafford has shown little to no drop-off. It’s encouraging to see the players recognize this in such a drastic leap in the rankings.
32. Marcus Peters – CB, Chiefs
Marcus Peters was drafted 18th overall by the Kansas City Chiefs in 2015, so he was expected to play well — but not this well. The corner made an immediate impact as a rookie, recording 26 passes defensed and picking off opposing passers eight times and taking two of them back for touchdowns. It’s rare that a rookie is immediately vaulted into the upper echelon of active defenders, but there was Peters, ripe for a sophomore slump. Instead, he matched his play, notching two fewer interceptions but playing just as effectively, resulting in the smallest of upward bumps in the rankings.
33. DeMarco Murray – RB, Titans
DeMarco Murray‘s one-year experiment in Chip Kelly’s Philadelphia offense crashed and burned, but boy, did the Titans make a wise decision in dealing for the former rushing champion. Featured as the bellcow (with a pretty solid spell back in Derrick Henry behind him), Murray toted the rock 293 times for 1,287 yards and nine touchdowns in the Exotic Smashmouth offense. His highlight tape was just as enjoyable as his numbers. At age 29, Murray will again power the ground game in Tennessee as the Titans look to take the next step toward returning to the postseason and bringing excitement back to Nashville. For Murray, his ranking at No. 33 is a sweet return to the Top 100 after the nightmare in Philadelphia.
34. Kam Chancellor – S, Seahawks
This one shouldn’t come as much of a surprise. Even without deep secondary mate Earl Thomas, Kam Chancellor remains in the 30s of the Top 100 with just a two-position drop, which is still better than his No. 41 ranking in 2015. It’s his fourth-straight year in the Top 100, and much like most of the rest of Seattle’s secondary, it’s par for the course. The only knock on Chancellor is a struggle to play a full 16-game season — he hasn’t done it since 2013 — but the rest of his numbers have remained consistent, as has his reputation across the league.
35. J.J. Watt – DE, Texans
This is where these rankings get fun. J.J. Watt played in three games last year and was noticeably injured before shutting it down for 2016. Houston still finished with the top-ranked defense. And Watt, who faded into the background during the Texans‘ run to the AFC South crown, still is in the upper half of the Top 100. Sure, it’s not the No. 3 ranking he garnered last year, but what can you expect? The man essentially didn’t play last season. Talk about respect. Oh, and now that he’s back, and Jadeveon Clowney (also a Top 100 entry) has showed he’s got the sauce, watch out. That Texans defense just became even more fearsome.
36. Tyreek Hill – WR, Chiefs
What is it with the Chiefs and immediate contributors? A year after Marcus Peters burst on the scene at cornerback, Tyreek Hill did the same on the opposite side of the ball. Well, first he did it in the return game, but it didn’t take coach Andy Reid long to figure out Hill should be a regular part of his offense. The speedster finished with 61 catches for 593 yards and six receiving touchdowns, rushed 24 times for another 267 yards and three scores, added another touchdown while returning kicks 14 times for an average of 27.4 yards and also returned 39 punts for 592 yards (15.2 yards per return) and two more touchdowns. Overwhelmed by the numbers? Kansas City is, too, but in the best way. KC rapper Tech N9ne even wrote a song that paid homage to the first-year wonder. Don’t forget that immediate entry into the Top 100 at No. 36.
37. Aqib Talib – CB, Broncos
Aqib Talib will shut your best receiver down, and he’ll snatch your chain while he’s at it. Michael Crabtree might not have been Oakland’s best target in 2016, but Talib did just that to the wideout in a season that was more of the same excellence from the 31-year-old corner. Talib falls just three places in the Top 100, in which he’s been included three times in his career, including 2017. The No Fly Zone is glad to have him.
38. Fletcher Cox – DT, Eagles
Selected 12th overall in 2012 out of Mississippi State, Fletcher Cox has been a menace up the middle since he entered the league. In 2015, he recorded 71 tackles and 9.5 sacks, a surprising number from a guy who spends much of his time fighting off multiple blockers on the interior. Cox is the crown jewel of the Eagles‘ front seven and always a focus of an opponent’s game plan, especially on the ground. His reputation continues to rise, as he moves up from No. 49 in 2016 to 38 in 2017, his second appearance in the Top 100.
39. Bobby Wagner – LB, Seahawks
Bobby Wagner appeared in the Top 100 once before in his career, after the 2014 season and two straight NFC titles for the Seahawks, but he’s back at a ranking that’s 30 spots better, and for good reason. The linebacker racked up an eye-popping 167 tackles to go along with 4.5 sacks (half a sack shy of tying his career high) as the Seahawks‘ defense finished third in total points allowed and fifth in the league in total yards allowed. The sun rises, the sun sets, and the Seahawks‘ defense continues to be among the league’s best. Wagner (and Top 100 mate Kam Chancellor) are big reasons why.
40. Vic Beasley – DE, Falcons
2016 was a euphoric season for fans of the Atlanta Falcons, and few elicited more cheers and happiness than Vic Beasley. It was truly a joy at times to watch Beasley rush the passer, with his peak play of the season coming against the Los Angeles Rams, when the outside backer stunted across two gaps to sack Jared Goff, then twice beat right tackle Rob Havenstein around the edge, culminating in a strip sack that Beasley recovered and returned for a score. If you need numbers to help you sleep at night, here’s Beasley’s year one to year two jump: 26 tackles to 39, 4.0 sacks to 15.5 (!), and no NFC titles to one conference crown. Atlanta should be very, very excited about what they have in Beasley, a first-time entry into the Top 100.