NFC North: NFLRank

LAKE FOREST, Ill. -- Apparently, a pair of tennis rackets dangle from Alshon Jeffery's wrists, and the Chicago Bears just hope the receiver continues to serve up the love in the form of receptions to the club's offense.

Jeffery
"There are a couple of things that make Alshon Jeffery special," explained offensive coordinator Aaron Kromer. "No. 1 is his size. No. 2 is his size and ability to get in and out of routes at that size; that's the thing that impresses you the most. No. 3, the balls he can catch away from his body. It looks like he puts up two huge tennis rackets to catch these balls. He pulls them in, and his hand strength is exceptional."

So was Jeffery's production in 2013, allowing him to come in at No. 31 on this year's NFLRank project in which ESPN ranked the league's top 100 players on offense and defense. In all, 23 players on offense made their debuts on this year's NFLRank project.

After a difficult rookie season in which he suffered a broken hand right hand, in addition to being sidelined with an arthroscopic knee surgery, Jeffery produced a gem in 2013, catching 89 passes for 1,421 yards and seven touchdowns, combining with Brandon Marshall for 2,716 yards and 19 TDs.

"I think part of it is the chemistry he has with this team," Bears coach Marc Trestman said. "His work ethic hasn't changed. That's a sign to be able to stack a good year on a good year. He's done it for one year. He knows he's got to prove himself. He's got to stack years and years together to be a great player like Brandon has. If you could see him work here on a daily basis, he's doing all the right things to put another good year together."

Jeffery was one of two receivers in 2013 to produce two 200-yard games (Gordon was the other), and the only one to put together a 200-yard game on the road (a single-game franchise record 249 yards against the Vikings in Week 13). Jeffery attributes the bump in production from his rookie season to 2013 simply to learning the intricacies of the offense.

Jeffery also spent the majority of the offseason training with Marshall in Florida.

"My first year here, I would say it was just a learning process. It was about learning and knowing the NFL," Jeffery said. "Just staying on the field [in 2013] and staying healthy helped last year. But like I said, it was a big learning curve from my first year to my second year."

Potentially on the verge of stardom, Jeffery prefers not to look too far ahead. Asked where he sees himself in three years, Jeffery said, "Ask me that question three years from now, but I'd say the sky is the limit."

That certainly seems to be the case with Jeffery and the rest of the Bears coming off a 2013 season in which offense set multiple franchise records. Interestingly, Jeffery is the only player in Bears' history to produce two 200-yard receiving games, and is one of eight players in NFL history to accomplish that feat in the same season.

Over his first two years, Jeffery has caught 113 passes for 1,788 yards and 10 touchdowns.

"My mentality when that ball goes up in the air is it's my ball," Jeffery said. "I've got to make the play."
Joseph
Houston
LAKE FOREST, Ill. -- A Chicago Bears defender finally made the cut in our NFLRank project, which commenced with Day 3 on Wednesday as ESPN continued to rank the top 100 players on offense and defense, with defensive end Lamarr Houston checking in at No. 80.

The latest rankings grouped players between Nos. 80 through 71. Bears tight end Martellus Bennett made the list on Tuesday with a No. 82 ranking.

Read more on Bennett and his ranking, here.

According to ESPN Stats & Information, the Oakland Raiders posted a sack on 7 percent of pass attempts with Houston on the field, compared with 4.5 percent of attempts when he wasn’t on the field. Perhaps that’s why the Bears made Houston the jewel of their class of free agents, signing him in March to a five-year deal worth $35 million.

Bears general manager Phil Emery believes Houston is starting to come into his prime as a defender.

“Obviously watching tape of him, Lamarr has matured into a very versatile, powerful, tough, physical, productive player, and we’re very happy to have him as a member of the Chicago Bears,” Emery said after the signing.

A fifth-year veteran, Houston is coming off a 2013 season in which he racked up a career-high six sacks for 52 yards in losses. Houston led Oakland’s defensive linemen last season with 71 tackles, forced two fumbles and collected 10 tackles for lost yardage.
He might be the reigning NFL MVP, but according to ESPN's #NFLRank project, Adrian Peterson isn't even the best -- or second-best -- player in his own division.

Peterson
Peterson
The project, which ranked the top 100 offensive and defensive players in the league, concluded today with Green Bay Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers atop the offensive rankings, followed by Detroit Lions receiver Calvin Johnson. Peterson was No. 3 on the list -- behind two record-breaking players in the NFC North -- but how do you Vikings fans feel about it? In the words of Minnesota's own Coen brothers, vis--vis one of the most enduring characters they created, I'm guessing this aggression will not stand, man.

Here's what ESPN Stats & Information had to say about Peterson:

"In 2012, Peterson had 1,019 rush yards after contact, which would have made him the NFL's 16th-leading rusher. In the past four seasons, Peterson has 2,918 rush yards after contact, the most of any NFL player."

My take: Even though Peterson had a MVP-worthy season in 2012, I didn't expect a panel of experts to rank him as the top player in the league. The game right now is the province of quarterbacks, and it's tough to find one better than Rodgers, who won the MVP a year before Peterson did and led the league in several statistical categories last season. I could quibble a little more with the selection of Johnson over Peterson, considering how much the Lions' offense is tailored to him putting up garish numbers. Peterson is the focal point of the Vikings' offense, yes, but it's not as easy for an entire defense to gear up for Johnson the way opponents try to prepare for Peterson. Still, we're picking nits here between three tremendous players, and there's no question Peterson is among the very top tier of the game's elite. Where he fits in that tier might be a matter of personal preference.
GREEN BAY, Wis. -- The final installment of our #NFLRank project was revealed on Friday, and it should come as little surprise that Green Bay Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers was No. 1 on the list of the Top 100 players on offense.

Rodgers
Rodgers
There also was a Wisconsin connection to the top player on the defensive side, J.J. Watt of the Houston Texans. He not only played at the University of Wisconsin, but he’s a native of Pewaukee, a town on the outskirts of Milwaukee.

With Rodgers and Watt at the top of their respective lists, ESPN’s Greg Garber declared Wisconsin as the “epicenter of football.”

As for the Packers, let’s review which players made the lists:

Offense

No. 1: QB Aaron Rodgers

No. 64: WR Randall Cobb

No. 66: WR Jordy Nelson

Defense

No. 6: OLB Clay Matthews

No. 45: DT B.J. Raji

No. 92: CB Tramon Williams

Also, here’s a little bonus nugget from ESPN’s Rob Peterson, who headed this project. Peterson tells me that Packers tight end Jermichael Finley was No. 102 on the list of offensive players.

#NFLRank: Ndamukong Suh is No. 16

August, 29, 2013
8/29/13
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Let's pick up ESPN's #NFLRank project now that it includes another member of the Detroit Lions. As you recall, the exercise was to rank the NFL's top 100 offensive and top 100 defensive players.

Defense

16. Ndamukong Suh
Stats & Info: Since his rookie season in 2010, Suh has 19.0 sacks when lined up as an interior defensive lineman. Only Geno Atkins has more (21.0).
Seifert comment: Suh has the ability to be a top-5 player in the league. As he enters what amounts to a contract year, and with a healthy Nick Fairley playing alongside him, there is every reason to expect Suh to play like one this season.

The Lions' showing to date:

Offense
94. Quarterback Matthew Stafford

Defense
16. Suh
76. Defensive tackle Nick Fairley

#NFLRank: Jared Allen is No. 14

August, 29, 2013
8/29/13
2:40
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Another Vikings player was recognized today in the latest installment of ESPN's NFL Rank project -- an effort to determine the top 100 offensive and defensive players in the game. Defensive end Jared Allen is the 14th-best defensive player in the game, according to a post highlighting players No. 11-20 on the list.

Allen
Here's what ESPN Stats and Information had to say about Allen:

"Allen has had at least 10 sacks in each of the past six seasons, tied with DeMarcus Ware for the longest active streak in the league. Allen hasn't missed a game since 2007."

My take: The fact that Allen still posted 12 sacks while playing all of last season with a torn labrum shows just how effective and consistent he continues to be for the Vikings. He is 31 this season, and is entering the final year of his contract with the Vikings, so in addition to his health, Allen will have plenty of motivation to put up big numbers this season. He remains the most formidable player on the Vikings' defense, and with Brian Robison and Everson Griffen also on the Vikings' defensive line, opponents can't single out Allen the way they might like to do. Expect another big year from him in his 10th season -- but by this point, it isn't exactly going out on a limb to say that.

#NFLRank: NFC North in 41-50

August, 26, 2013
8/26/13
1:45
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Three North players were among those ranked between 41-50 in our #NFLRank project, an ESPN effort to identify the top 100 offensive and top 100 defensive players in the NFL. As always, our portion of both lists are updated at the bottom.

Offense
48. Chicago Bears tailback Matt Forte
Stats & Info: Since entering the league in 2008, Forte has 15 100-yard rushing games. The Bears are 14-1 in those games. Of the 19 running backs with at least 10 100-yard games over that span, Forte's 14-1 record is the best.
Seifert comment: Forte might be the best pass-catching running back in the NFL, and he's also been a 1,000-yard rusher in three of his five seasons. You can expect Marc Trestman's offense to take better advantage of his capabilities.

Defense
45. Green Bay Packers defensive tackle B.J. Raji
Stats & Info: Raji has an NFL-high 7.5 sacks when lined up as the nose tackle in a 3-4 defense over the last three seasons. The Packers' defense has allowed exactly one fewer yard per rush inside the tackles with Raji on the field over that span.
Seifert comment: From a national perspective, Raji might still be living off his performance in the Packers' run to the Super Bowl in 2010. The team expressed some reservation as well by deciding not to extend his contract this offseason.

47. Minnesota Vikings defensive tackle Kevin Williams
(Detailed here by ESPN.com's Ben Goessling)

NFC North showing to date:

Offense
48. Forte
59. Minnesota Vikings left tackle Matt Kalil
64. Green Bay Packers receiver Randall Cobb
66. Green Bay Packers receiver Jordy Nelson
72. Minnesota Vikings center John Sullivan
77. Minnesota Vikings receiver Greg Jennings
94. Detroit Lions quarterback Matthew Stafford
97. Chicago Bears quarterback Jay Cutler

Defense
45. Raji
47. Williams
53. Chicago Bears defensive tackle Henry Melton
65. Minnesota Vikings linebacker Chad Greenway
76. Detroit Lions defensive tackle Nick Fairley
81. Chicago Bears cornerback Tim Jennings
92. Green Bay Packers cornerback Tramon Williams
95. Minnesota Vikings safety Harrison Smith

Here is a one-stop link for all of our #NFLRank coverage on this blog.

And finally, here is my post taking a broader look at what this project has revealed.

#NFLRank: Kevin Williams is No. 47

August, 26, 2013
8/26/13
1:05
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Another Vikings player was honored today in the latest installment of ESPN's NFL Rank project, which identifies the top 100 offensive and defensive players in the league heading into this season.

Defensive tackle Kevin Williams, who is entering his 11th season in 2013, was ranked the 47th-best defensive player in the league. Here's what ESPN Stats & Information had to say about Williams:

"Since the start of 2008, Williams has been on the field for 4,131 snaps, most in the league among defensive tackles."

My take: It'd be interesting to do this list again at the end of the season and see where Williams ranks. The Vikings plan to play him in a rotation with Sharrif Floyd this season -- though at the moment, they're both nursing knee injuries -- and Williams, who is in the final year of his contract, could see his role diminished by the end of the year. He said after the Vikings drafted Floyd that he believes "I'm still the top dog here," but the reality is, Williams probably would have been cut if he hadn't agreed to void the final year of his contract and take a reduced salary for 2013. He still can be effective, particularly against the pass where he's done his best work over the years, but he gets moved out of the way in the run more than he used to, and he probably won't be the every-down force he's been for most of his career.

#NFLRank: NFC North in 51-60

August, 23, 2013
8/23/13
1:30
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Two NFC North players were among those ranked between 51-60 in our #NFLRank project, an ESPN effort to identify the top 100 offensive and top 100 defensive players in the NFL. As always, our portion of both lists are updated at the bottom.

Offense
59. Minnesota Vikings left tackle Matt Kalil
(Detailed here by ESPN.com's Ben Goessling)

Defense
53. Chicago Bears defensive tackle Henry Melton
Stats & Info: Melton has 13 sacks over the past two seasons when lined up at one of the defensive tackle positions. Only the Bengals' Geno Atkins (17.0) has more.
Seifert comment: Sack totals always draw attention for defensive tackles, and there is no doubt Melton is productive in a way that NFL teams value. (He's the Bears' franchise player this season.) But there is some doubt about how good Melton is on the plays he doesn't get a sack on. He isn't often mentioned as one game's top interior players.

NFC North showing to date:

Offense
59. Kalil
64. Green Bay Packers receiver Randall Cobb
66. Green Bay Packers receiver Jordy Nelson
72. Minnesota Vikings center John Sullivan
77. Minnesota Vikings receiver Greg Jennings
94. Detroit Lions quarterback Matthew Stafford
97. Chicago Bears quarterback Jay Cutler

Defense
53. Melton
65. Minnesota Vikings linebacker Chad Greenway
76. Detroit Lions defensive tackle Nick Fairley
81. Chicago Bears cornerback Tim Jennings
92. Green Bay Packers cornerback Tramon Williams
95. Minnesota Vikings safety Harrison Smith

Here is a one-stop link for all of our #NFLRank coverage on this blog.

#NFLRank: Matt Kalil is No. 59

August, 23, 2013
8/23/13
12:42
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Vikings left tackle Matt Kalil is the 59th-best offensive player in the NFL, according to our #NFLRank project, an ESPN effort to identify the top 100 offensive and top 100 defensive players in the NFL.

Here's what ESPN Stats and Information had to say about Kalil, the Vikings' second-year tackle who made the Pro Bowl in his rookie year:

"Kalil played every single offensive snap for the Vikings last season. On first down, the Vikings averaged 7.2 yards per carry on rush attempts to the left side, best in the NFL (2012 league average was 4.6)."

My take: Kalil looks even stronger and healthier in his second season, after an offseason diet and training regimen designed to replace the 20 pounds he lost last season with more muscle. He's said he feels better than he did late last season, when he contracted pneumonia before the Vikings' penultimate regular-season game, and though he whiffed on blocking the Bills' Jerry Hughes on the Vikings' first offensive play last Friday night, Kalil figures to be as adept at handling speed rushers as he was in his first season.

#NFLRank: NFC North in 61-70

August, 22, 2013
8/22/13
1:45
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Let's check in with the three NFC North players who are among those ranked between 61-70 in our #NFLRank project, an ESPN effort to identify the top 100 offensive and top 100 defensive players in the NFL. As always, our portion of both lists are updated at the bottom.

Offense
64. Green Bay Packers receiver Randall Cobb
Stats & Info: Cobb had 63 receptions out of the slot last season, which ranked second in the NFL behind Wes Welker.
Seifert comment: If Cobb establishes himself as the Packers' No. 1 receiver this season, as many expect, he'll find himself ranked much higher in 2014.

66. Green Bay Packers receiver Jordy Nelson
Stats & Info: Nelson has 22 touchdown catches over the past two seasons, the most by any wide receiver. Nelson did it despite ranking just 40th among wide receivers in targets over that span.
Seifert comment: Nelson's injury problems last season, and his knee surgery this summer, has left some wondering whether he was simply in the right place at the right time for his breakout 2011 season.

Defense
65. Minnesota Vikings linebacker Chad Greenway

Stats & Info: Greenway has 444 tackles during the past three seasons, most in the league. Greenway has played 98.5 percent of defensive snaps during that span, third highest among linebackers with at least 48 games played.
Seifert comment: Greenway has been a reliable workhorse for the Vikings, having not missed a game after losing his rookie season to a torn ACL. But he has rarely been recognized as an elite player, probably because the Vikings' 4-3 scheme isn't set up for linebackers to make a ton of statistically-relevant big plays.

NFC North showing to date:

Offense
64. Cobb
66. Nelson
72. Minnesota Vikings center John Sullivan
77. Minnesota Vikings receiver Greg Jennings
94. Detroit Lions quarterback Matthew Stafford
97. Chicago Bears quarterback Jay Cutler

Defense
65. Minnesota Vikings linebacker Chad Greenway
76. Detroit Lions defensive tackle Nick Fairley
81. Chicago Bears cornerback Tim Jennings
92. Green Bay Packers cornerback Tramon Williams
95. Minnesota Vikings safety Harrison Smith

Here is a one-stop link for all of our #NFLRank coverage on this blog.

#NFLRank: NFC North in 71-80

August, 21, 2013
8/21/13
1:55
PM ET
Let's check in with the three NFC North players who are among those ranked between 71-80 in our #NFLRank project, an ESPN effort to identify the top 100 offensive and top 100 defensive players in the NFL. As always, our portion of both lists are updated at the bottom.

Offense
72. Minnesota Vikings center John Sullivan
Stats & Info: Is Adrian Peterson making Sullivan look good, or is it the other way around? Vikings rushers had 14 rushes of at least 20 yards up the middle last year, more than twice as many as any other team (Buccaneers, Titans and Bills had six).
Seifert comment: Sullivan was a Pro Bowl alternate last season and had as good of a season as any center in the NFL. He appears to have recovered fully from offseason microfracture surgery on his knee.

77. Minnesota Vikings receiver Greg Jennings
Stats & Info: Jennings provides a much-needed deep threat for the Vikings. Since 2008, Jennings ranks 11th in receptions and tied for sixth in touchdowns on throws of 15 or more yards downfield. The Vikings ranked last in the NFL in both categories last season.
Seifert comment: Those statistics are accurate, but the Vikings are hoping Jennings simply provides a reliable intermediate target for quarterback Christian Ponder.

Defense
76. Detroit Lions defensive tackle Nick Fairley
Stats & Info: Since drafting Fairley in 2011, the Lions' defense has allowed 3.6 yards per rush with Fairley on the field and 5.4 yards per rush with him off the field.
Seifert comment: There is little doubt about Fairley's talent. The key for him is staying on the field. He has missed nine games in two seasons.

NFC North showing to date:

Offense
72. Sullivan
77. Jennings
94. Detroit Lions quarterback Matthew Stafford
97. Chicago Bears quarterback Jay Cutler

Defense
76. Fairley
81. Chicago Bears cornerback Tim Jennings
92. Green Bay Packers cornerback Tramon Williams
95. Minnesota Vikings safety Harrison Smith

Here is a one-stop link for all of our #NFLRank coverage on this blog.
Only one NFC North player was among the 20 new players added Tuesday to ESPN.com's #NFLRank project, which ranks the top 100 offensive and top 100 defensive players in the NFL.

I'll continue pointing them out on the blog and will keep a running tally at the bottom of each post.

Offense

None

Defense
81. Chicago Bears cornerback Tim Jennings
Stats & Info: Jennings defended or intercepted 21 passes last year. Jennings was one of three players over the past three seasons to have at least 20 passes defended or intercepted in a season.
Seifert comment: Jennings gets plenty of action because teams have shied away from his better-known partner, Charles Tillman. But he has obviously been up to the challenge and, at 29, is entering a contract year with a chance to further polish his reputation.

NFC North showing to date:

Offense
94. Detroit Lions quarterback Matthew Stafford
97. Chicago Bears quarterback Jay Cutler

Defense
81. Jennings
92. Green Bay Packers cornerback Tramon Williams
95. Minnesota Vikings safety Harrison Smith

Here is a one-stop link for all of our #NFLRank coverage on this blog.
You might have noticed that ESPN.com debuted an ambitious project Monday to rank the top 100 offensive and top 100 defensive players in the NFL. I was one of the 63 staffers who submitted votes.

Ten players in each category will be revealed over the next two weeks, each with a cool nugget from ESPN Stats & Information. I'll draw your attention to NFC North participants whenever appropriate, and here are the four who were among Monday's reveals:

Offense
94. Detroit Lions quarterback Matthew Stafford
Stats & Info: "For his career, Stafford is just 1-22 against teams that finished the season with a winning record. His only win came in Week 8 of last season against the Seahawks. Stafford threw 727 passes in 2012, breaking Drew Bledsoe's single-season record of 691 from 1994."
Seifert comment: This ranking seems low, until you see who was ranked three spots below him.

97. Chicago Bears quarterback Jay Cutler
Stats & Info: "Since Cutler came to Chicago in 2009, the Bears are 32-8 when he throws one or fewer interceptions. When he throws at least two picks, the Bears are just 2-14. Over that same span, only two quarterbacks -- Christian Ponder and Mark Sanchez -- have a worse Total QBR in losses."
Seifert comment: This doesn't change the thrust of last week's take: Someone is going to pay Cutler a bunch of money this offseason.

Defense
92. Green Bay Packers cornerback Tramon Williams
Stats & Info: "Williams has intercepted or defended 51 passes in the past three years, most of any player in the NFL."
Seifert comment: Williams hasn't matched his Pro Bowl-caliber 2010 season, in part because of a 2011 shoulder injury. He is now 30, which in Packers terms is ancient, and you wonder if he will make it to the 2014 season with this franchise.

95. Minnesota Vikings safety Harrison Smith
Stats & Info: "Last season, Smith led all rookie defensive backs in tackles (98), ranked second in snaps (992) and tied for fourth in interceptions (three)."
Seifert comment: If Smith has as good of a season as the Vikings believe he will, his 2014 ranking on this list will be much higher.

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