By Nick Shook
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Last week, we unveiled another set of 10 of the Top 100 Players of 2017, but one of them didn’t appreciate it very much.
While it was understandably frustrating to spend the season on the sideline and likely aggravating for J.J. Watt to see himself still ranked high — considering the standard to which he holds himself — it also was a great compliment paid to him by his peers. Whether he appreciated it doesn’t matter much, but it’s interesting, because in this week’s group, we have a couple of players who also spent significant time on the sideline, yet they’re still ranked among the top 30.
Rob Gronkowski and Earl Thomas missed a combined 13 games in 2016. Gronkowski went down after only eight games, which at the time led many to seriously question New England’s ability to contend. Newsflash: It didn’t hurt much, seeing as the Patriots celebrated the franchise’s fifth Super Bowl triumph last week at owner Robert Kraft’s home.
The loss of Thomas hurt Seattle’s secondary, but not enough to keep the Seahawks out of the playoffs. Watt’s injury also didn’t keep the Texans from winning the AFC South.
Moral of the story here: These men are undoubtedly vital to their teams’ success, and while they had to take great steps to adjust in their absence, the league’s players sure didn’t hold it against them. That makes the honor that much more valuable in this writer’s opinion. Hang it on your mantle, Earl and Rob, even if J.J. won’t accept it.
Here’s to healthy seasons for all as they look to bolster their already sky-high reputations.
21. Richard Sherman – CB, Seahawks
We’ve spent much of the offseason talking about how Richard Sherman was faced with the reality that he might spend 2017 outside of the Pacific Northwest, and even though he remains a Seahawk, there’s a reason plenty of online space and television segments were dedicated to his situation: the man is one of the league’s best cornerbacks. The outspoken and passionate defensive back again posted stellar numbers, intercepting opposing passers four times, recording 13 pass defenses and notching 58 tackles. Sherman was again the ruler of his third of the field as Seattle finished eighth in passing yards allowed per game. Trade block or not, Sherman is still a guy quarterbacks are looking away from in the passing game. A one-position drop reflects his consistency as he nears 30 years old.
22. Ben Roethlisberger – QB, Steelers
Ben Roethlisberger was again at the helm of a Steelers team that continued its divisional reign, winning the AFC North for the second time in three seasons. Pittsburgh made the playoffs for the third straight season, reaching the conference championship game after a dominant performance against Miami and a grind-it-out win over Kansas City. Roethlisberger again did his part as the leader of one of the NFL’s best offenses, completing 64.4 percent of his passes for 3,819 yards, 29 touchdowns and 13 interceptions in 14 games. Pittsburgh finished tied for fifth in the league in passing yards per game at 262.2 and tied for 10th in total points scored with 399. More of the same from the future Hall of Fame signal-caller.
23. Rob Gronkowski – TE, Patriots
Rob Gronkowski missed the second half of the season with a back injury, removing the Patriots‘ most dangerous weapon. No matter for New England, which adjusted and rolled to Super Bowl LI, where the Patriots completed the greatest comeback in the game’s history. Gronkowski had to watch that one from the sideline but should be encouraged by a return in 2017 (he says he feels “super excited” to be back on the field). His best recent highlight might have come during an match at Wrestlemania in April, but that won’t last for long once he’s back on the gridiron. His peers know as much, voting him into the top 25 (though he dropped from ninth to 23rd) even after the shortened season.
24. Russell Wilson – QB, Seahawks
Did you know Russell Wilson has a Nike cleat? It isn’t named after him, instead going by the name Alpha Menace Elite, but the name is indicative of Wilson’s role when facing opponents. He’s been a menace to opposing defenses, gutting out injuries suffered early in the season to complete 64.7 percent of his passes for a career-high 4,219 yards. Add in a 21-11 touchdown-to-interception ratio, and it’s easy to see why the league’s players only dropped him seven places. As theSeahawks work to improve positions around him, the quarterback remains the steady, reliable signal-caller for Pete Carroll’s Seahawks. The scouts who believed Wilson was too short to succeed in the NFL probably have a much different assessment of him now.
25. Joe Thomas – OT, Browns
For the Browns and their nearly two decades of struggles, Joe Thomas has long been the lone bright spot. The 10-time Pro Bowl selection and nine-time All-Pro is beloved in Cleveland for his play and his goofy support of the city’s other pro franchises, and as the Browns look to turn it around, Thomas remains a stone wall at left tackle, falling just two places in the rankings while consistently protecting the Browns‘ constantly rotating carousel at quarterback. The latest passer can find solace in the fact he has Thomas blocking for him. The rest of the team’s fan base does as much, even as the squad around him struggles for victories.
26. Travis Kelce – TE, Chiefs
Kelce was a big-play machine and bombastic at times, but based on this ranking, his peers also know he’s a force to be reckoned with. As Kansas City recently waved goodbye to Jeremy Maclin, the rest of the fan base could find comfort in knowing Kelce remained ready to exploit mismatches for Alex Smith and the Chiefs‘ offense. The tight end excelled in 2016, posting career highs in receptions (85) and yards receiving (1,125), while also scoring four times, and recording one memorable ejection for throwing a piece of waist-hung cloth while not wearing stripes. More of the same — save for the ejection — should be expected as the Chiefs again look to contend for the AFC West title.
27. LeSean McCoy – RB, Bills
Rushing for 1,267 yards and 13 touchdowns as part of the NFL’s best rushing attack, LeSean McCoy has completely validated the Bills‘ wise decision to trade for him in 2015. Buffalo didn’t waste time trying to fool opponents, relying on McCoy and Mike Gillislee to pound away on the ground. The running back showed no signs of slowing, recording 11 runs of 20-plus yards for a Buffalo team that aims to be better in 2017. His fellow players noticed his 372-yard and 10-touchdown improvement, vaulting him 42 places up the rankings.
28. Landon Collins – S, Giants
Say hello to the hammer of the New York Giants‘ pass defense. Landon Collins enters the prestigious rankings after posting career highs in tackles (125) and interceptions (5), as well as passes defensed (13). The safety is on the rise, earning his first Pro Bowl and All-Pro selections at just 23 years old. Among the league’s best coverage and run-stopping safeties, Collins is an early favorite for Defensive Player of the Year honors in 2017, and he doesn’t seem to be going anywhere but up in these rankings.
29. Mike Evans – WR, Buccaneers
Mike Evans is among the league’s best targets, finishing fourth in receiving yards (1,321) and scoring 12 touchdowns on the way. He has some help now with the addition of speedy slot receiver DeSean Jackson, as Jameis Winston enters 2017 with the most targets he’s had as a professional. More of the same should be expected from the 6-foot-5 wideout, who improved on a 74-catch 2015 season by hauling in 96 passes in 2016. He can add his first entry into the Top 100 next to those marks as Tampa Bay heads into this season as one of the league’s rising teams.
30. Earl Thomas – S, Seahawks
Thomas broke his leg in a 40-7 win over Carolina in Week 13, but instead of talking about his serious injury, he was too busy complimenting teammate Richard Sherman for his break on the ball. His peers didn’t let the injury distract them either, launching him 36 places higher in the rankings, from No. 66 to 30. The safety has since maintained that laser focus on the game, working to return from the injury even after there were questions about whether it could end his career. Stopping Thomas won’t be that easy. The safety is looking to build on a 2016 campaign that saw him record 48 tackles, 10 passes defensed and two interceptions. At age 28, we wouldn’t be surprised to see the big-hitter return to form in 2017.