#NFLRank: What we've learned so far

August, 26, 2013
8/26/13
11:45
AM ET

We all like to think we know football. We know that it "all starts up front" and that "games are won in the trenches." It's hip to recognize football as "the ultimate team game" and ridicule quarterback-crazed amateurs who see it through a fantasy lens.

And then we conduct an exercise like #NFLRank. And the truth comes out.

As you probably know, ESPN.com asked 63 people connected to the company's football coverage to rate each NFL starter on a scale of 0-10. The idea was to develop a comprehensive list of the top 100 offensive players in the game as well as its top 100 defensive players. What we got, as we can see here even at the midpoint of the project, is a skewed viewpoint that I think accurately reflects the way most of the (educated) general public sees the game.

A few representative numbers:
  • Of the 32 offensive linemen who made the top 100, 22 have already been revealed among the bottom 50. There will only be 10 among the top 50.
  • Of the 16 quarterbacks who made the list, only four have been revealed thus far. That means 12 will be among the top 50.
  • Six running backs have been revealed, leaving nine to make the top 50.
  • There are almost as many receivers (30) in the top 100 as there are linemen (32), even though teams have more than twice as many linemen in their starting group as receivers.
  • In all, the top 50 offensive players will include 40 skill-position players and 10 linemen.
  • Defensively, the thought process is similar. More than half (51) of the 100 defensive players come from recognizable "pass-rushing positions" -- either linebackers or defensive ends.

This is neither surprising nor an indictment of the project. Even those of us who love the game aren't going to recognize the skill of an offensive lineman, a defensive tackle or a safety who produce neither game-changing plays nor have easily understood statistics unless we have a reason to.

Take me, for example. I've covered the NFC North for five years. I can name all eight starting guards on those teams and, within reason, can rank them based on skill. (Josh Sitton, Rob Sims, Kyle Long, T.J. Lang, Charlie Johnson, Matt Slauson, Brandon Fusco, Detroit Lions TBA.)

But I had a lot of studying to do just to know the rest of the NFL's guards for this project, and I'm sure my evaluations left something to be desired. I'm like the rest of you. I'm not watching a random team's guards unless I specifically set out to do it. Like many others, my eyes are drawn to the pass-rushers, the pass-throwers, the pass-catchers and the runners.

In the NFL, there are 160 starting offensive linemen and 32 starting quarterbacks. Are we to believe that 12 of those 32 passers are as good at their positions as the best 10 of the 160 linemen? Are 14 of the league's 32 starting receivers as good as the best 10 linemen? Are there 34 linebackers and defensive ends whose play measures up to the best 16 defensive tackles, cornerbacks and safeties? Probably not, but that's how we, too, often view the game.

To this point, the biggest reader objections to the rankings via comments have centered around running back Alfred Morris (No. 75) and quarterbacks Cam Newton (No. 100) and Tony Romo (at No. 62) -- all of whom were deemed to have been rated too low.

Omar "stopped reading when I saw Cam Newton was ranked 100." Jade added: " How is cam newton 100? Who dares call themselves a analyst when they put such a good player so low? ESPN definitely lost credibility after putting out such a sloppy article. Player haterrs."

In fact, Newton ranked No. 16 in the NFL in Total QBR last season, and he is the 16th of 16 quarterbacks ranked in this project. Is he too low? Or do we just not know enough about the people ranked above him?

Meanwhile, Ryan wrote: "Lol wait a minute, Alfred Morris is behind some guy named John Sullivan and 74 other guys when he was 2nd in the NFL in yards last year? Is this list in alphabetical order or something?"

In fact, Sullivan was one of the NFL's top centers last season. Looked at another way, Morris is ranked one spot below arguably the best player at another position. Morris might have been second in yards last season, but he had the third-most carries. Sometimes opportunity is as important as skill.

It's important to remember that this project wasn't intended to name the 100 most important players on offense and defense. It was a raw evaluation of how the players compare to others at their position. I think we know football. But do we know the players who play good football? That's another story entirely.

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