NFC North: #NFLRank 2014

GREEN BAY, Wis. – Aaron Rodgers fell from atop the ESPN #NFLRank list.

But he's still the highest-ranked quarterback.

The Green Bay Packers star slipped to No. 2 in the second annual offensive player list, flip-flopping spots with Detroit Lions receiver Calvin Johnson, but Rodgers remained on top of the quarterback class. He edged out Denver's Peyton Manning (No. 3 overall).

Other quarterbacks in the top 10 were New Orleans' Drew Brees (No. 6) and New England's Tom Brady (No. 7).

According to ESPN Stats & Information, since Rodgers became the Packers' starting QB in 2008, his 3.67 touchdown-to-interception ratio is the best in the NFL. His Total QBR of 74 during that span is second only to Peyton Manning (80).

The Packers finished with nine players in the top 100 combined on offense and defense. Only four teams – San Francisco (15 players), Seattle (13), New England (10) and Denver (10) – placed more players on the lists.

Here are the Packers in the rankings:

Defense
No. 95: CB Sam Shields
No. 81: DT B.J. Raji
No. 50: OLB Julius Peppers
No. 14: Clay Matthews

Offense
No. 77: G Josh Sitton
No. 66: WR Randall Cobb
No. 60: RB Eddie Lacy
No. 34: WR Jordy Nelson
No. 2: QB Aaron Rodgers
Ndamukong Suh is one of the most polarizing players in the NFL. His talent has made him one of the best players in the league and a dominant defensive tackle. How he sometimes roughs up quarterbacks and others, though, has brought him a bunch of scrutiny.

Based on his play, however, there is little doubt he is in the Top 10.

Suh
Suh was one of two Detroit Lions players to be in the Top 10 of the #NFLRank project on either offense or defense and he comes in at No. 9 on defense. Calvin Johnson was named the top offensive player in the NFL from our 90-person panel.

Combined, they are two of the most dominant players in the NFL and last season they combined to be the two most feared players in the league.

Suh's skills are special for a defensive tackle. He is an elite pass-rusher who is also strong against the run. His size and speed make him capable of lining up outside on the end in some situations, and he commands double teams on almost every play.

It isn't a shock at all that he is in the Top 10 among defensive players. If anything, I'm kind of surprised he wasn't higher on the list, but because of the position he plays, his statistics sometimes don't explain exactly how good he is.
ALLEN PARK, Mich. -- A fan asked Matthew Stafford a question Wednesday. It was almost a silly question six years into the quarterback’s NFL career -- especially since throughout his whole career, he has known one receiver more than anyone.

 To paraphrase the question: Was there any awkwardness for him, as a Georgia player, to throw to a receiver who went to rival Georgia Tech?

It took Stafford essentially one day to get over that. When a player is as gifted as Calvin Johnson, it’s easy to forget about college loyalties.

For Stafford, this connection has been extra special and extra important, and he knows it. Johnson is a special player. He is the best receiver in the NFL and perhaps one of the top pass-catchers of all time. Stafford is the second-fastest quarterback ever to throw for 10,000 yards, and a lot of that has to do with the man at the other end of so many of his passes.

All of those skills are why Johnson was named the top offensive player in the NFL by our 90 panelists here at ESPN. This may be a quarterback-driven league, but Johnson is one of the few players any quarterback in the league would want to make him look even better.

In seven years in the NFL, Johnson has amassed 572 catches for 9,328 yards and 66 touchdowns. He holds the single-season receiving yards record with 1,964 yards, and the combination of all of his physical gifts make him torturous to cover for opposing defensive backs, who nearly all admit to needing help to do it.

“When I first came into the league, Randy Moss was kind of that big, long receiver who could stretch the field, run by you, separate from any corner he played against,” cornerback Quentin Jammer told ESPN.com last year. “[Johnson] is a bigger version of that, [he can] out-muscle you and run by you.”

Then there’s how Johnson acts on and off the field. In a wide receiver world in which so many skill players like to talk and draw attention to themselves, Johnson does none of that. He’s almost universally liked, even by the players who have to cover him.

Johnson
 He is fairly quiet. He rarely boasts and often appears uncomfortable talking about his own ability and feats. He is a superstar in skill and in game, but he's a regular guy when it comes to how he acts.

“When you talk about going against a guy, you look at off-the-field presence, who he is as a player, and he’s just a hardworking, stand-up, nice guy off the field, very humble,” Miami cornerback Cortland Finnegan said. “So it’s hard to try and p--- him off, you know. It’s just one of those things.

“But you just want to compete with him because you understand in order to become better and be on to his level, you have to play good every snap because he’s going to bring it every snap. It’s one of those things that you know every single play can be that game-changing play.”

Not many players in the NFL are like that -- and Johnson is one of the most dangerous and best at accomplishing it.

ESPN NFL Nation Denver Broncos reporter Jeff Legwold contributed to this report.
GREEN BAY, Wis. -- There is no doubting the impact that linebacker Clay Matthews has when he is on the field for the Green Bay Packers.

Matthews
According to ESPN Stats & Information, when Matthews was on the field over the past two seasons, the Packers had a sack percentage of 8.9 percent, which would have been tied for second best in the league.

The problem is that Matthews has missed nine regular-season games over the past two seasons, including five last season because he twice broke his right thumb.

That is the likely reason that Matthews dropped eight spots to No. 14 among all NFL defensive players in this year's ESPN #NFLRank.

He is the fourth -- and (spoiler alert) final -- Packers defensive player to appear in the top 100. The Packers will not have any defensive players in the top 10, which will be revealed on Friday.

Here are the Packers in the rankings so far:

Defense
No. 95: CB Sam Shields
No. 81: DT B.J. Raji
No. 50: OLB Julius Peppers
No. 14: Clay Matthews

Offense
No. 77: G Josh Sitton
No. 66: WR Randall Cobb
No. 60: RB Eddie Lacy
No. 34: WR Jordy Nelson
Chicago Bears running back Matt Forte improved his standing from a year ago in our #NFLRank project, moving from No. 48 to No. 29 in the latest edition, in which ESPN ranks the top 100 players in the league on both sides of the ball.

Forte
Forte
The latest rankings grouped players between Nos. 30 through 21. Receiver Alshon Jeffery was one of 23 players on offense to make his debut in the 2014 #NFLRank project, checking in at No. 31

Forte finished last season ranked third in the NFL in total yards from scrimmage (1,933 yards) on the way to being named to his second Pro Bowl. Forte rushed for 1,339 yards, carrying the ball on 71.5 percent of the team’s rushes, which ranked as highest in the league, according to ESPN Stats and Information.

Since 2008, Forte ranks third in the NFL in yards from scrimmage (9,585), behind Chris Johnson and Adrian Peterson.

Forte ranked one spot ahead of San Diego quarterback Philip Rivers and one slot behind Pittsburgh quarterback Ben Roethlisberger.

None of Chicago’s defenders made Wednesday’s offering in the #NFLRank project.
GREEN BAY, Wis. -- How many 29-year-old NFL players are still ascending?

Count Green Bay Packers receiver Jordy Nelson among the small group that can make that statement.

Nelson, who turned 29 on May 31, jumped 32 spots to No. 34 among all offensive players in ESPN's second annual #NFLRank project.

The Packers clearly believe Nelson has not reached his plateau. After all, they gave him a four-year, $39 million contract extension last month. In new money, it made Nelson the ninth-highest paid receiver in the NFL by average salary per year.

According to ESPN Stats & Information, Nelson has 31 receptions of 30 or more yards since the start of 2011. That ranks second to only Detroit's Calvin Johnson (32).

Here's a look at the Packers in the rankings so far:

Defense
No. 95: CB Sam Shields
No. 81: DT B.J. Raji
No. 50: OLB Julius Peppers

Offense
No. 77: G Josh Sitton
No. 66: WR Randall Cobb
No. 60: RB Eddie Lacy
No. 34: WR Jordy Nelson
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."

Age question follows Julius Peppers

August, 25, 2014
Aug 25
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GREEN BAY, Wis. -- You might think Julius Peppers would bristle at the question by now.

After all, he has heard it more than once since he signed with the Green Bay Packers in March.

Still, the veteran pass-rusher appears to take it in stride every time he is asked how much he could possibly have left in the tank after 12 NFL seasons.

"There's not a lot of 34-year-old defensive ends playing in the league," Peppers said recently. "So I guess it's a fair question. But I don't really put too much into it."

For one thing, the Packers aren't asking Peppers to play defensive end. Instead, they view him as a perfect outside linebacker in Dom Capers' 3-4 scheme.

Rather than playing with his hand in the dirt like he did during his Pro Bowl years in Carolina and Chicago, the Packers want the 6-foot-7, 287-pounder standing up in a two-point stance. But that's a technicality. They want him to do what he has always done -- rush the quarterback.

"Just look at him and you see physically with his height, his long arms, his athletic ability, you can see the basketball in his background," Capers said. "He's a really smart guy. He's picked things up mentally really better than I anticipated he would."

Although the Packers gave him a three-year contract that included a $7.5 million signing bonus, it's essentially a one-year trial because that's the only guaranteed money in the deal.

Peppers is coming off what most consider a disappointing season by his standards, which is why he fell to No. 50 in the second annual ESPN #NFLRank list from 15th in last year's poll.

Last year, the eight-time Pro Bowler and three-time All-Pro selection recorded just 7.5 sacks despite playing in every game. However, even if he were only able to replicate that sack production, it would be the highest total by a Packers player not named Clay Matthews since Aaron Kampman had 9.5 in 2008, the year before Capers took over the defense.

"It's not really about maximizing my individual statistics or anything like that," Peppers said. "It’s about maximizing my abilities to try and fit into this defense and try to help this defense be more productive. It's about me coming here, trying to come here and help this defense and help this team win."

The Packers believe the addition of Peppers could free up Matthews for more one-on-one pass-rushing opportunities.

It's the first time in Matthews' five-year career that he has played with another legitimate pass-rushing threat.

"You look around the league and you look at the tandems of pass-rushers who have one on the left and one on the right, they definitely help increase their numbers as well as the effectiveness of that defense," Matthews said. "We're hoping that this year's no different. There's a reason we brought him in here; it's to help create pressure on the quarterback along with myself and the guys in the middle. You look at a lot of defenses that are pretty good in this league, they have pass-rushers that can get after the quarterback and get them off their spot, and I think that was clearly evident in the Super Bowl last year."
The NFLRank project rolled into Friday with Chicago Bears linebacker Lance Briggs coming in at No. 56, as ESPN continued to list the top 100 players around the league on offense and defense.

The latest rankings grouped players between Nos. 60 through 51. Charles Tillman checked in at No. 66 in the project on Thursday, while tight end Martellus Bennett made the list on Tuesday with a No. 82 ranking. Defensive end Lamarr Houston became Chicago’s first defender to crack the top 100 (No. 80)

Having earned Pro Bowl recognition on seven consecutive occasions, Briggs finds himself in unique company considering the only Bears with more trips to the league’s annual all-star game since the merger are Mike Singletary (10) and Brian Urlacher (eight).

Interestingly, Briggs ranked one spot above Seattle linebacker Cliff Avril. The Bears face the Seahawks on Friday night at CenturyLink Field in preseason game No. 3.

Briggs played just nine games last season, but finished with 10 stuffs -- a tackle of a rusher for negative yards, according to STATS LLC -- which tied for seventh most in the NFL. Since coming into the league in 2003, Briggs has collected and NFL-high 81 stuffs for 197.5 lost yards.

With 1,501 tackles over his 11-year career, Briggs ranks No. 2 in franchise history behind Urlacher. Briggs moved past Singletary last season, and posted 87 stops despite playing in just nine games.
Lacy
GREEN BAY, Wis. -- It did not take Eddie Lacy long to enter into the NFL's consciousness.

By his fourth game as a pro last season, the Green Bay Packers running back had posted his first 100-yard game. By season's end, he was one of the league's most recognizable – and productive – running backs.

And 1,178 rushing yards later, he finds himself well within the top 100 offensive players in ESPN's #NFLRank project. When the next set of 10 players was unveiled on Friday, there was Lacy at No. 60.

It was Lacy's hard-charging running style that perhaps made him so popular with fans and respected by opposing defenses. According to ESPN Stats & Information, Lacy had the fourth-most yards after contact in the NFL last season with 531. He also was the only rookie with more than 1,000 rushing yards and at least 10 touchdowns in 2013.

The top-50 players on each side of the ball will be announced next week.

Here's a look at the Packers in the rankings so far:

Defense
No. 95: CB Sam Shields
No. 81: DT B.J. Raji

Offense
No. 77: G Josh Sitton
No. 66: WR Randall Cobb
No. 60: RB Eddie Lacy
GREEN BAY, Wis. -- How good do the voters in ESPN’s #NFLRank feel about Green Bay Packers receiver Randall Cobb?

How's this for a sign: He missed 10 games last season yet slipped only two spots from last year. In our second annual rankings, Cobb checked in at No. 66 among all NFL offensive players when Nos. 61-70 were revealed on Thursday.

Perhaps the lingering memory of Cobb was his game-winning, NFC North-winning 48-yard touchdown catch on fourth down with 46 seconds left in the regular-season finale against the Chicago Bears. It came in Cobb's first game back after breaking his tibia and landing on the temporary injured reserve list.

Cobb was on his way to a big season before his injury.

He has become one of Aaron Rodgers' most reliable receivers. According to ESPN Stats & Information, Cobb caught 78 percent of his targets in 2012, second best among wide receivers (Brandon Stokley, 79 percent) that season.

Cobb is the fourth Packers player to make one of the lists. Nos. 51-60 will be revealed on Friday, followed by the rest next week.

Here's a look at the Packers in the rankings so far:

Defense
No. 95: CB Sam Shields
No. 81: DT B.J. Raji

Offense
No. 77: G Josh Sitton
No. 66: WR Randall Cobb
GREEN BAY, Wis. -- Josh Sitton is no longer an unknown commodity around the NFL.

Last season, the Green Bay Packers left guard was named to the Associated Press' All-Pro second team.

And now the seventh-year veteran has cracked the ESPN #NFLRank project, which picks the top 100 players on each side of the ball. When players 71-80 were revealed on Wednesday, Sitton popped up at No. 77.

He's the third Packers’ player to show up in the rankings so far, but the first on the offensive side of the ball.

ESPN Stats & Information has come up with nuggets about each player selected and had this to say about Sitton:

"Sitton and the Packers' offensive line allowed their running game to average 2.9 yards before contact per rush last season, fifth best in the NFL. Sitton played more offensive snaps than any other Packer last season.”

Packers in the rankings so far:

Defense
No. 95: CB Sam Shields
No. 81: DT B.J. Raji

Offense
No. 77: G Josh Sitton
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.

Matthew Stafford ranked No. 71

August, 20, 2014
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ALLEN PARK, Mich. -- The ESPN #NFLRank project continues to roll on, and the second Detroit Lions player has made an appearance.

Reggie Bush popped up on Monday at No. 98 among offensive players. Now his quarterback, Matthew Stafford, has shown up on the list.

Stafford was ranked as the No. 71 offensive player in the league in a poll of 90 ESPN writers and analysts.

This is actually a big jump for Stafford, which is somewhat surprising considering the second half of his 2013 season, when he threw as many touchdowns as interceptions (13). Stafford was ranked No. 94 in last year's poll.

He is also considered the No. 4 quarterback in fantasy entering the season and is expected to put up big numbers in new coordinator Joe Lombardi's offense.

So far, as written about Tuesday, Stafford has looked extremely sharp this preseason.
GREEN BAY, Wis. -- Green Bay Packers cornerback Sam Shields broke in to the top 100 on ESPN's #NFLRank project, but just barely.

It remains to be seen how many cornerbacks will check in higher than Shields as the rest of the list is unveiled over the next two weeks. The fifth-year cornerback was No. 95 on the list of top defensive players in the league as polled by 85 ESPN NFL contributors, including all 32 NFL Nation reporters.

But the four-year, $39 million contract he signed as a free agent in March suggests the Packers expect him to be even better than that.

Based on average per year, Shields' $9.75 million pay ranks tied for sixth among all NFL cornerbacks behind Darrelle Revis ($16 million), Richard Sherman ($14 million), Patrick Peterson ($14.01 million), Joe Haden ($13.5 million) and Brandon Carr ($10.02 million).

According to ESPN Stats & Information, since Shields' rookie season of 2010, no player has more postseason interceptions than he does (four).

This is the second year of this ESPN project, and Shields did not make the top 100 last year. Over the next two weeks, the list of players will be revealed 10 at a time. The Packers did not have any players in the 91-100 category on the offensive side of the ball.

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