By Nick Shook
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We’re inside the final 20 of the Top 100 Players of 2017, which is where things really start to get fun. And my, how a year can change everything.
That was the prevailing sentiment as the Oakland Raiders sprinted to a Wild Card berth and looked like a legitimate Super Bowl contender until Derek Carr was cut down by a broken leg. Oakland washed away the sins of a decade of putrid football in returning to the playoffs for the first time since the 2002 season, with much of the credit due to Carr. It’s no surprise, then, that the quarterback is in this Top 100 ranking, just as he was the year prior.
But No. 11??
Before you don your eye patches and spiked shoulder pads and charge the NFL Media offices to prove that Carr deserves his ranking, you should know I don’t disagree with it. Carr and the Raiders were wildly entertaining in 2016, especially when they played at home, where they went 6-2. That comeback against Buffalo in Week 13 was magical. No ill will intended here at all.
But when compared with last season’s ranking of 100, the 89-position leap left me slack-jawed. It’s the greatest difference in ranking in the Top 100 this season, and if you’re a numbers person, it’s pretty intriguing. Consider this:
Carr in 2015 (16 games played): 350-573 (61.1 percent), 3,987 yards, 32-13 TD-INT, 91.1 passer rating, 31 sacks taken
Carr in 2016 (15 games played): 357-560 (63.8 percent), 3,937, 28-6 TD-INT, 96.7 passer rating, 16 sacks taken
There are minimal differences there, yet Carr enjoyed a massive leap upward in rankings. It further proves that only one number matters: wins.
2015 Oakland Raiders: 7-9
2016 Oakland Raiders: 12-4, Wild Card appearance, exorcism of the ghost of still-living Bill Callahan
11. Derek Carr – QB, Raiders
We gave you the numbers already. It’s time to wax poetic about Carr, who along with Khalil Mack is the driving force behind the Raiders‘ renaissance. Head coach Jack Del Rio showed plenty of trust in Carr right off the bat in 2016, entrusting the quarterback to throw for the 2-point conversion that ultimately lifted Oakland to an opening-weekend road win over New Orleans. It grew from there, and the Raiders‘ offense excelled as a result. Carr developed a connection with Amari Cooper early, with the two teaming up to post four 125-plus-yard games in the first eight weeks. The quarterback also established a rapport with Michael Crabtree, as the offense succeeded in both the air and on the ground. Oakland finished sixth in the league in total yards and seventh in total points scored. Without Carr, none of that happens. The future is bright in the Bay Area (and Las Vegas).
12. David Johnson – RB, Cardinals
Johnson grew from welcome surprise as a spell back to one of the league’s most promising runners between years one and two. The speedster toted the rock 293 times for 1,239 yards and 16 touchdowns in 2016, but his greatest value might actually lie in catching the ball out of the backfield. Johnson finished with 80 catches for 879 yards and four touchdowns, good enough to tie with Carolina tight end Greg Olsen for 20th in the league in receptions. He ended 2016 38th in receiving yards, but No. 1 among running backs. That about covers it.
13. Eric Berry – SS, Chiefs
Berry beat cancer and returned to again star for Kansas City, thanks to his insane workout regimen that he followed while fighting the disease. That was good enough for his peers to put him at No. 55 in 2016’s rankings. A year later, Berry was one of the most important pieces of Kansas City’s defense, a unit that finished seventh in points allowed per game. Berry doubled his 2015 interception total of two by picking off opponents four times, including a two pick-sixes and a pick-two that won the Chiefs a pivotal Week 13 game over Atlanta in a homecoming for Berry, an Atlanta-area native. His story is great, but his play is even better.
14. Dak Prescott – QB, Cowboys
I don’t want to be Debbie Downer here. I really don’t. But this selection keeps whispering “hyperbole, hyperbole!” in my ear. These are individual season rankings, though, Prescott was the quarterback of one of the league’s best teams, and he did do a bang-up job. But will we see him in the Top 20 after Year 2? If he posts another similar season, perhaps. Zoom in on his rookie stat line and you’ll see why he’s up here after one season: a 23-4 TD-INT ratio. Prescott limited mistakes and flirted with a completion percentage of 70, finishing at 67.8. He also posted a 104.9 passer rating, and the Cowboys finished 13-3. OK, fine, he deserves this.
15. Aaron Donald – DT, Rams
Donald was a bright spot in an otherwise dark season for Los Angeles in 2016. The 2014 first-round pick of the Rams continued to establish himself as one of the quickest interior defensive linemen off the snap in the league, registering eight sacks from primarily a three technique in Los Angeles’ 3-4 scheme. Donald’s value can be seen better on film than on paper, but anyone who’s caught a glimpse understands how much of a terror he can be for opposing offenses.
16. Drew Brees – QB, Saints
Some day, Drew Brees will no longer play professional football, and while we rave about the latest and greatest passer in the game, someone in the room is going to pull up NFL stats of years gone by and see Brees prominently displayed. Too often, we take Brees’ air attack for granted. The quarterback led the league in passing yards for the seventh time in his career in 2016, throwing for 5,208 yards with a completion percentage of 70. His TD-INT ratio was 37-15, and he did this while his offense also featured a 1,000-yard rusher in Mark Ingram. It wasn’t enough to overcome his team’s 31st-ranked sieve of a defense, but thankfully for the veteran, his league mates don’t hold that against him.
17. A.J. Green – WR, Bengals
Green’s ranking despite losing the back end of his 2016 season isn’t surprising, but it does serve as a sign of the respect the rest of the league has for him. Green came just shy of 1,000 yards receiving in just 10 games before suffering a season-ending hamstring injury in Week 11. Cincinnati’s offense plummeted without him, with quarterback Andy Dalton breaking 300 yards passing just once in the final seven games of the season. The Bengals went 3-4 in the absence of Green to finish the campaign 6-9-1. When healthy, Green remains one of the league’s best and most dangerous receivers.
18. Tyron Smith – OT, Cowboys
It’s tough for me to see Smith ranked below his quarterback. Yes, Prescott plays the most important position in football and had a phenomenal rookie season, but if I’m ranking these players on ability, value and track record, I’m still putting Tyron Smith ahead of Prescott, who’s up there at No. 14. I only need one play to illustrate why: Ezekiel Elliott‘s clinching touchdown run against Pittsburgh. Smith is the anchor of the best offensive line in the league. We don’t need numbers to support this argument; the tape does more than enough to drive it home. It starts in the trenches, folks.
19. Patrick Peterson – CB, Cardinals
The clock turns, the sun rises and sets, and Patrick Peterson remains one of the league’s best cover corners. Peterson registered 51 tackles, six passes defensed and three interceptions in 2016, and while those numbers might seem low, it’s not a knock on Peterson. Opposing quarterbacks often just don’t throw in his direction. He’s also a talented returner, but that role shrunk significantly in 2016. We’ll move on, but first, here’s an overlooked number pertaining to Peterson’s health: the cornerback has appeared in all 96 games of his career.
20. Luke Kuechly – LB, Panthers
Kuechly was the heart and soul of a Panthers defense that did plenty of its share as Carolina galloped through the NFC to Super Bowl 50. 2016 wasn’t as kind to Carolina or Kuechly, who spent six games on the sideline due to a concussion suffered in Week 11 against New Orleans. ThePanthers missed him and it showed in their 6-10 finish. Much like Green, the linebacker is among the league’s very best when healthy, though his future isn’t quite as certain.