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Written by Matthew Wood, Toby Durant and guest contributor Jacob Mignano
Following in form last week’s first edition, the second in our series of articles upon our take on the NFL Top 100 players is out now. Who will be involved from #80-#61 in our list?
#80- Lance Briggs; Outside Linebacker, Chicago Bears
Hailing from Sacramento, California, Lance Briggs is a dominant and imposing outside linebacker for the Chicago Bears. Drafted in the 3rd round of the 2003 NFL draft by the team from the windy city, Briggs has spent the past 9 seasons making a name for himself in tandem with Chicago legend; the fearsome Brian Urlacher. Briggs has showed no sign of slowing in recent years, improving his play consistently as the Bears look to become a prominent challenger for a Superbowl crown yet again. Briggs has made the Pro Bowl 7 times, all of which have come in a row from 2005, while the Californian has been voted an All-Pro 3 times, in 2005, 2006 and 2009. His only Superbowl appearance came in 2006 when the NFC champion Bears were defeated by Peyton Manning’s Indianapolis Colts.
Briggs courted controversy last year after openly demanding a new contract and questions the Bears front office policy of how they dealt with money and their star players, Matt Forte’s standoff coming to mind. Briggs has been a playmaking maestro for the Bears over the years, accumulating 965 tackles over his 9 year career to go with 10.5 sacks and a very impressive 13 interceptions, including a career high 3 in 2008. Although Briggs has never been an imposing pass rushing linebacker, his all round strengths combine for a very effective playmaker, whether it is forced fumbles, interceptions or tackling ability.
#79- Richard Seymour; Defensive Tackle, Oakland Raiders
Since entering the league in 2001 Richard Seymour has been a dominant force on the defensive interior, first for the New England Patriots and now in the black and silver. In his prime Seymour was the best 3-4 defensive lineman in the NFL. With a change of club and advanced years that title has been passed on, but he continues to a terror opposing offensive lines. He’s been the anchor of 3 Superbowl defenses, bagged himself as many as 8 sacks in a single season (twice) and got 6 last year.
His ability to read plays as they develop and shed blocks make him an incredibly active player in the front 4, he is far more than a block-absorber for linebackers so they can go and make plays. At 32 he still has a lot to give the Raiders, should they be willing to re-sign him after 2012.
#78- Maurkice Pouncey; Centre, Pittsburgh Steelers
A lot of responsibility falls on the shoulders of the man in the middle of the Offensive Line. Diagnosing defensive schemes, calling audibles at the line of scrimmage, adjusting blocking schemes as well as, crucially, snapping the ball to the quarterback, it’s no wonder that NFL Centres tend to be amongst the elder, more experienced statesmen of the league. How remarkable it is, then, that the Steelers’ Maurkice Pouncey has become one of the best at his position in only 2 seasons in the league. Drafted out of the University of Florida with the 18th overall selection in the 2010 NFL draft, Pouncey was the highest selected Centre in 13 years, and seamlessly transitioned into the Steelers Offensive line, where he was the undoubted high-point of what was, at times, a suspect line during the Steelers’ run to the 2011 Super Bowl. In fact, such was Pouncey’s impact that much of the pre-Super Bowl talk revolved around whether he’d be able to recover from injury to play. Unfortunately Pouncey missed out that year, but at 23 years of age, with 2 Pro-Bowls already under his belt, Pouncey is sure to be one of the NFL’s premier Centres for a long time.
#77- Chris Snee; Guard, New York Giants
Chris Snee, born in Edison, New Jersey and drafted in the 2nd round of the 2004 NFL Draft by the iconic New York Giants, has been an ever present in Big Blue’s team since he left his alma mater Boston College to forge a career in the NFL. Since starting in 11 games in his rookie year, Snee has only missed a single game, in 2011, as he consistently busted holes for and protected some of the more decorated running backs and QB’s of their era. A 3 time pro bowler and All Pro (all in 2008, 2009 and 2010) Snee has won 2 Superbowl rings, in the 2007 and 2011 seasons against the New England Patriots, with both runs to glory exhibiting dominant ground game improvement come playoff time.
In 2011, Snee’s performance in the playoffs led to Brandon Jacobs and Ahmad Bradshaw performing admirably in Green Bay in particular as the Giants established their presence up front before allowing Eli Manning to beat the defending champion Packers through the air. Although not gigantic at 6ft 3 inches and 305 lbs, Snee possesses a nasty streak as well as significant dominance and a high football IQ. Snee’s ability to get to the linebackers has allowed the likes of Tiki Barber, Ahmad Bradshaw and Brandon Jacobs to run consistently well, and Bradshaw and 1st round pick David Wilson out of Virginia Tech will hope for similar dominance in 2012.
#76- B.J. Raji; Nose Tackle, Green Bay Packers
BJ Raji entered the league in 2009 with an awful lot of expectation. He was a dominant player for Boston College and had given a big return to the Packers already for their investment of a 9th overall pick. As the anchor of a 3-4 defense Raji isn’t supposed to be a “playmaker”. He isn’t supposed to be a disruptive force across the entire front. But he’s every part the penetrating, disruptive and explosive player you could ever wish from a (generous) 337lb nose tackle. On his day.
Like his defensive teammates, Raji struggled a little in 2011, failing to replicate the kind of performances he put in during the Packers run to the Lombardi trophy in 2010. But at just 26 he’s got plenty of time to prove he can be a much more consistent force in the middle.
#75- Darren McFadden; Running Back, Oakland Raiders
Few could argue that the 2008 NFL Draft was a great draft for running backs. Chris Johnson was drafted 24th in the first round, Matt Forte and Ray Rice went in the second, and Jamaal Charles went in the third. Above all of them, however, was Raiders’ running back Darren McFadden, drafted 4th overall out of Arkansas. Some might have said it was a typical Al Davis move – drafting based predominantly on a 40-yard dash time – but now the late owner will be looking down upon RunDMC (as he has become known) as a much vindicated selection. After 2 disappointing seasons, it was the 2010 season in which McFadden really made a name for himself, eclipsing 1,000 yards in a season for the very first time, with a total of 10 touchdowns from scrimmage and an additional 507 yards receiving. Now, Darren McFadden is arguably one of the most dangerous all-purpose backs in the NFL – when fit. Unfortunately for the former Razorback, staying fit has been a real challenge during his short career, particularly last season when he was limited to only 7 starts, much to the chagrin of the many fantasy football owners who drafted him in the first round. With backup Michael Bush now gone, it is imperative McFadden can stay injury-free this season – if he does, few would argue that he is one of the most explosive backs in the NFL.
#74- Scott Wells; Centre, St. Louis Rams
Scott Wells, hailing from Spring Hill In Tennessee, is another shining example of one of the success stories concerning a last round draft pick who has gone on to become an unmitigated star in his position. Wells, drafted by the Green Bay Packers in 7th round of the 2004 NFL Draft, having played college at Tennessee, was the #251st pick of his class, and has come very much in to his own in recent years. Wells secured himself as the starter at the anchor position of centre of the Green Bay Packers offensive line in 2006, starting all 16 games. Although sporadically hurt in the 2008 and 2009 seasons, Wells became perhaps the most oppressive of all the Green Bay offensive players in 2012 as Aaron Rodgers led the Pack to their 4th Superbowl triumph.
Having impressed tremendously in 2011 alongside guard Josh Sitton, Wells became an unrestricted free agent at the end of the 2011 season, earning himself a lucrative deal to go and snap the ball to Sam Bradford in St. Louis as the Rams looked to build around the talented young QB out of Oklahoma. Standing at 6ft 2inces and weighting a meaty 295lbs, Wells has been classified as rock solid and extremely durable, while being an excellent technician who seldom gets beaten in pass protection by the dominant pass rushing defensive tackles in the NFL. Although the wrong side of 30, Wells will ensure Bradford’s progression and health through the middle of his line for years to come.
#73- Mike Iupati; Guard, San Francisco 49ers
It normally takes a long time for guards to grow into dominant players in the NFL. The step up from college to the NFL can be incredibly big given the depth and rotation at D-Line teams now employ. But Mike Iupati, with just 2 years under his belt, is every bit the dominant guard the 49ers were hoping for when they drafted him in the 1st round.
Born and raised in American Samoa, Iupati came to American football relatively late on, but his huge size and strength quickly turned him into a force on the field. Now at 6 foot 5 and 331lbs Iupati is as mobile and flexible guard as you could wish. He’s a devastating run blocker who is fast enough to pull down the line and be the point of attack on power plays, or get downfield on screens. With age now weathering the skills of Steve Hutchinson, Carl Nicks & Ben Grubbs on new teams for 2012 and Logan Mankins recovering from a torn ACL, the title of Best Guard in the NFL is very much up for grabs this year, don’t be surprised if Iupati is the one crowned come February.
#72- Brandon Marshall; Wide Receiver, Miami Dolphins
Whilst not quite as far down on the diva wide receiver spectrum as the artist formerly known as Ochocinco, Brandon Marshall has nonetheless had his fair share of off-field trouble. From the infamous episode of his wife stabbing him near the stomach, to numerous other brushes with the law, Marshall’s behaviour off of the field sometimes overshadows what he has accomplished on it. Despite all that, he has still amassed over 1,000 yards receiving in 5 of his 6 seasons in the league, the only year he didn’t being his first season as a 4th round rookie drafted out of Central Florida. Marshall’s height of 6 foot 4 inches and his huge, powerful frame make him an extremely physical ball catcher, almost impossible to tackle one-on-one in the open field. His imposing stature also makes it easy for him to go up above cornerbacks and come down with the ball and be an effective possession receiver, showcasing this ability in the 2009 season, when he set an NFL record for receptions in a game with 21. If he can still graft his way to 1,000 yards receiving in the Dolphins less-than-stellar Offense of the past two years, his reunion with Jay Cutler should see him return to prominence as one of the league’s most dangerous receivers. Two measly 3rd round-picks seem like a bargain.
#71- Matt Forte; Running Back, Chicago Bears
The 4th Chicago Bear on our list thus far, Matt Forte, born in Lake Charles, Louisiana and drafted in the 2nd round of the 2008 NFL Draft out of unassuming college Tulane has fast become one of the most feared and all round talented running backs in today’s NFL. Widely considered to be most of Chicago’s offense for the past couple of seasons as QB Jay Cutler has worked with less than elite receivers, Forte was the subject of much offseason conjecture. The 6ft 2 inch 218lb speedster was franchised tags by his team at a value of $7.74 million but soon expressed his frustration at a lack of a long term deal, considering the possibility of holding out as the Bears signed former Raider Michael Bush. With Forte eventually agreeing to a 4 year $32 million deal, he looks set to lead a potentially potent Bears offense in 2012.
Despite being injured for the final 4 games of the 2011 season, in which a promising Chicago season took a late nosedive, Forte posted a career high average and was well on the way to around 1,300+ yards. Having started all 60 games since being drafted in 2008, the back has accumulated well over 4,000 yards, with a career high 1,238 in his rookie year. Despite only boasting 8 TD’s in said year, Forte is very much a dual threat back, fast becoming a go to receiver for Jay Cutler in times of need or pressure. Forte has never posted less than 450 yards receiving and has accumulated 8 receiving TD’s to go with his 21 on the ground. His 2011 season, as mentioned, ended in slight disappointment considering that he was well on track to post career high figures as the Tulane alumni became the true focal point of the Bears offense. Now healthy and raring to go, look for Matt Forte to establish himself as a Top 5 running back in fantasy and real terms in 2012.
#70- Jon Beason; Middle Linebacker, Carolina Panthers
After 4 years of good-to-great play in the NFL, 2011 looked very much like Jon Beason’s time to announce himself to a wider audience as a truly elite linebacker and the heartbeat of the Panthers defense. Then, in week 1 against Arizona, Beason suffered a nasty and season-ending Achilles injury.
Now at 27, Beason has been working hard to regain the burst and top end speed that really separated him from a lot of his fellow MLB’s. Achilles injuries are rarely without complications or serious, long-lasting effects but Beason when fully fit can be a huge influence in all aspects of the Panthers defensive game plan. He will be a huge piece of their push for the playoffs in 2012.
#69- Calais Campbell; Defensive End, Arizona Cardinals
It’s probably fair to say that few current players strike as much fear into the heart of an Offensive line or indeed a quarterback as Arizona’s Calais Campbell. A physical freak of nature at 6″8′ and 300 pounds, Campbell’s sheer size and power makes him an intimidating force at the line of scrimmage. Remarkably, in spite of his size, Campbell still has the speed and agility to get to the quarterback, leading a rejuvenated Cardinals Defence with 8 sacks last season. Arguably now the 2nd best 3-4 Defensive End in the league behind San Francisco’s Justin Smith, Campbell really can do it all – in addition to his 8 sacks, he also had 2 forced fumbles and an interception, whilst his height makes him extremely effective at batting down the ball at the line of scrimmage, and even helped him to block a few crucial field goal attempts last year. Particularly considering that DEs in a 3-4 alignment generally don’t have as much license to wreak havoc as their 4-3 brethren, it really is remarkable just how destructive Campbell manages to be in absolutely all phases of play, and it would be hard to argue that the Cardinals’ best move of this offseason was signing their franchise player – still only 25 years of age by the way – to a lucrative, 5 year contract.
#68- Justin Tuck; Defensive End, New York Giants
Justin Tuck, the 2nd Giant in this particularly section of the list, is an imposing and often dominant defensive end from Kellyton, Alabama, taken in the 3rd round overall out of the prestigious Notre Dame college in the 2005 NFL Draft. The 6ft 5inch 274lb behemoth has since established himself as one of the most fearsome edge rushers in the New York Giants 4-3 defensive scheme. Along with teammate Osi Umenyiora and now 3rd year All-Pro Jason Pierre-Paul, the New York Football Giants hold the mantra of quite probably the best defensive line in football, as well as of course being the reigning Superbowl champions. Tuck has played a pivotal role in both of the Giants Superbowl victories under head coach Tom Coughlin and Quarterback Eli Manning, teaming up with Umenyiora and future Hall of Famer Michael Strahan in Superbowl 42, while making key plays in Green Bay in the Divisional Round and against Tom Brady in Superbowl 46 a mere 4 years later.
Beside from his terrifying face mask, Tuck boasts explosive strength off the line and an unrelenting engine as he looks to make plays on opposition QB’s. Despite being injured and in and out of the team in his first 2 years in the NFL, Tuck started 64 games straight from 2007-2010, as well as returning from time out injured at the right possible moment in 2011 as he started 12 games on the now famous Superbowl run. Tuck has accumulated 345 combined tackles in his illustrious career, recording 45 sacks, including a career high 12 in 2008, the same year he picked off his only interception. To stand out on a Giants Front 7 you must be truly special, and the 2 time Pro Bowl and All-Pro DE (both in 2008 and 2010 respectively) is respected and feared around the league in equal measure. Ominously for opposing teams, all of the Giants pass rushing talent will return in 2012 as Big Blue look to make another Superbowl run.
#67- Chris Johnson; Running back, Tennessee Titans
Perhaps the most disappointing player in the whole NFL in 2011, Chris Johnson’s struggles seemed to stem from his protracted holdout in the pre-season which saw him miss all of training camp. He came into the year looking slow and sluggish and never really recovered. His once prolific performance was cut down to just 4.0 yards a carry and he barely scraped over the 1,000 yard rushing mark, something of a comedown for “CJ2K”.
With a full pre-season to get fit, knock the rust off and maybe Johnson can get back towards his best. But with the Titans passing game up in the air (unintentional pun alert), and changes along the offensive line, it might be an uphill battle to get that “2K” moniker back.
#66- Darren Sproles; Running Back, New Orleans Saints
Without doubt one of the most threatening multi-purpose players in the league, Darren Sproles enjoyed something of a renaissance last season after joining the New Orleans Saints from the San Diego Chargers as a free agent last offseason. Having spent much of his early career backing up future Hall of Famer LaDainian Tomlinson on the west coast and featuring predominantly as a dangerous return man, Sproles became an important part of the Saints’ high octane Offense, tallying over 600 yards rushing and 700 yards receiving. His diminutive size (5’6″) and blistering speed make him a valuable asset to any Offense, particularly as a third-down back, and Sproles excels at catching the ball out of the backfield and making defenders miss in the open field. An excellent return man too, Sproles set a new NFL record for all-purpose yards (rushing, receiving, and returning) in a season, with a whopping 2,696 yards, and it was also his catch, for a 9-yard gain, that saw Brees break Dan Marino’s record for passing yards in a season. With Mark Ingram hopefully returning from injury Sproles could see his carries reduced this season, but he’s sure to feature prominently nonetheless in one of the league’s most feared offensive units.
#65- Antonio Gates; Tight End, San Diego Chargers
Antonio Gates, much like Scott Wells of the Green Bay Packers, is one of the remarkable success stories to sweep through the NFL in recent years. The 6ft 4 inch 260lb tight end, born in Detroit, Michigan, was an undrafted free agent signed to the San Diego Chargers roster out of Kent State, where he had spent his college career as a power forward for the Golden Warriors basketball team. Once it became eminently clear that Gates would not make it as an NBA player, Gates arranged a workout for NFL scouts, choosing to train first with the San Diego Chargers. Immediately recognising his potential, the Chargers signed Gates to a contract and his hall of fame career has developed from there. Considered one of the most prominent and influential Tight End’s of all time, Gates is a 8 time pro bowl and 5 time all pro player (2004, 2005, 2006, 2009 and 2010).
As a Tight End, he does everything at an exceptional level. His blocking skills are more than useful while his pass catching abilities are almost second to none. Although injured sporadically over the past couple of years, Gates is almost impossible to cover working over the middle, creating drastic mismatches with any linebacker or safety that is unfortunate enough to find themselves 1 on 1 with him. Gates is respected to an extent than in Week 2 in the 2011 season, despite ailing with plantar fasciitis, Bill Belichick chose to triple cover him on occasion, taking away one of Philip Rivers most important weapons. Gates has accumulated 7,783 receiving yards over his entire career, despite missing 9 games over the past 2 seasons. His greatest tally stands at 1,157 yards in 2009, with 72 career TD receptions to boot. Now fully fit, Gates looks to reassert himself as one of the Top 3 TE’s in the game in 2012.
#64- Ray Lewis; Middle Linebacker, Baltimore Ravens
There is little doubting Ray Lewis’ illustrious career: 2 defensive player of the year titles, a Superbowl MVP, 13 Pro-Bowls. The list goes on and on. But coming into 2012 Ray Lewis is a 37 year old linebacker who gets seriously exposed in pass coverage.
There are few players who are as influential, pre-snap, in the entire league than Ray Lewis. He’ll make more adjustments than most QB’s will in a game. But once that ball is snapped Lewis is well off the pace of the new generation of linebackers. The Ravens can only blitz or spy Lewis now; he gets destroyed in coverage, particularly man to man. An awful lot of offenses try to get their TE or RB in man coverage with Lewis because they know he can’t run with them. Lewis’ fantastic ability to read and diagnose a play before it happens does keep him in contention to make a play, and he can still hit a hole with devastating force, but his days of being an elite complete linebacker are behind him. It might sound like NFL blasphemy and a lack of respect, but honesty should not be discouraged in player assessment.
#63- Brandon Flowers; Cornerback, Kansas City Chiefs
When the Packers marched into Arrowhead last season with a 13-0 record and on the hunt for perfection, few expected the Kansas City Chiefs to put up much of a fight. Having already fired Head Coach Todd Haley and with a brutally anaemic offense led by some combination of Tyler Palko and Kyle Orton, the Chiefs were playing for little else other than pride under interim boss Romeo Crennel. That’s when they unleashed their greatest weapon: Defence. The unit shut down the explosive packers and league MVP Aaron Rodgers, helping cement Romeo Crennel the job full-time in the process. One of the key pieces on the Chiefs extremely underrated unit is CB Brandon Flowers, whose play opposite Brandon Carr helped establish one of the top CB tandems in the league. Having joined the league in 2008, Flowers has grown into one of the top cornerbacks in the NFL. Despite his small size, Flowers has the quickness and toughness to match up to receivers in coverage, as well posing the threat of taking interceptions all the way to the house, something he has managed in 3 of his 4 seasons thus far. Carr may have jumped ship to Dallas in Free Agency, but Flowers should continue to be a key cog in what is fast becoming one of the NFL’s toughest Defensive units.
#62- Jason Babin; Defensive End, Philadelphia Eagles
Jason Babin, from Kalamazoo, Michigan, spent most of his early NFL career as a bit of a journeyman defensive end, being drafted by in the first round of the 2004 NFL Draft by the Houston Texans. However, the young Babin failed to live up to his undoubted potential and was released by the Texans after 3 years. Babin subsequently spent 2 years in Seattle, followed by a year in Kansas City. After a brief stint in Philadelphia, Babin finally found his form in Tennessee, breaking out for a Pro Bowl year with the Titans before signing a 5 year $28 million deal as a premier free agent with the Eagles, returning to Philadelphia for the second time. The 6ft 3inch 260lb Western Michigan graduate has earned consecutive Pro Bowl appearances in 2010 and 2011, making the All Pro team last season as he accumulated a remarkable 18 sacks, leading the league for a while before Jared Allen of the Minnesota Vikings surpassed Babin late in the year.
His early stats are somewhat unassuming, recording 13 sacks through his first 3 seasons before a lean patch in which only 4.5 sacks were made over the next 4 years. His big break came in Tennessee, securing 12 sacks before his move to Philly. Babin has excelled in Juan Castillo’s Wide 9 defensive scheme in Philadelphia, where Babin and his fellow DE Trent Cole, he of the vampiric eyes, line up in the ‘9’ gap, well outside the left and right tackles of the opposition. As such, bursting off the edge with speed can overwhelm offensive tackles. Despite poor play from the Eagles defensive tackles and linebacking core, both Babin and Cole proved that under certain conditions the scheme can be highly effective. The 2012 Philadelphia Eagles defense, led by Babin should be a much improved unit.
#61- James Harrison; Outside Linebacker, Pittsburgh Steelers
Ahh, the bad boy of the NFL. James Harrison will run through a brick wall if it’ll help him make a tackle. And who can blame him after his lengthy trip to NFL stardom. Undrafted in 2002, on and off the Pittsburgh practice squad, cut, signed by the Ravens, sent to play for Rhein Fire in Germany, cut by the Ravens, finally picked up by the Steelers again and when Clark Haggans injured himself Harrison was finally able to break into the NFL proper. And since then he’s hit absolutely anything and everything between him and the ball.
Harrison has wrapped up 3 double-figure sack seasons, and has doled out just about as many concussions. His fearsome play has gotten him into plenty of trouble with the Commissioner’s office, but when you consider the “hit first, ask questions later” nature of a lot of NFL, College and High School coaching he is simply doing what he has been told to throughout his career. And after all, how else do you dispel claims of being “too small” if not by being extra vicious in contact?