Putting the best in their place
ESPN.com's #NFLrank project lines up the 100 top players on each side of the ball
The spirited debates between NFL fans -- OK, we understand they're sometimes more like arguments -- percolate through the offseason and, invariably, escalate in training camp.
My quarterback is better than yours ...
... Yeah, well, my running back is way better than your quarterback.
It's hard to know the absolute answer with all that pride and passion blurring objectivity.
"Passionate fans, that's part of what makes the NFL so great," said J.J. Watt, the Houston Texans' ethereal defensive end. "They are so passionate and they love their favorite players. That's what makes it fun for me. Seeing people wear my jersey, I'm out there trying to make them proud, make my family proud.
"That's what it's all about."
The quarterback gets all of the statistical love (and sometimes the opposite), but what about the left offensive tackle, wrestling with the Watts of the world, who gives him the time to function? Or the cover corner and the slippery wide receiver he's covering? The elusive running back and the middle linebacker who's in pursuit?
How on earth do you compare those kinds of highly subjective apples and oranges?
Who is the best player in the NFL? Who is No. 100? How about No. 67?
Happily, we have the answers. All of them.
Beginning now, and continuing for 10 days, ESPN.com will roll out, in reverse order, 10 by 10, the top 100 players on each side of the ball. That's 100 percent more product than our friends over at the league's football network give you each year.
This was no easy feat; there are 1,696 players on NFL rosters at a given moment -- although we are subtracting kickers and special-teams warriors from the conversation (even kickers' teammates don't consider them football players), so we're down to a mere 1,600 or so.
"Seriously?" Watt asked, sounding impressed. "I mean, that's a very difficult job. I'm not very good at analyzing lists. I just play the game and leave the analyzing and opinions to everybody else."
Spoiler alert: Maybe (just maybe) Mr. Watt, with his 20.5 sacks and 16 passes defensed, is among the top 100 defenders.
We can't tell you exactly who placed where -- outside today's 90-100, anyway -- but we can give you some tantalizing teases:
• Nearly twice as many wide receivers (30) made the list as quarterbacks (16). Believe it or not, there were more offensive tackles (17) than passers.
• One-third of the defenders (33) are linebackers.
• The San Francisco 49ers have three defensive players in the top 11; all four of the Seattle Seahawks' defensive backs are in the top 100. The NFC West rivals are first and tied for second for most total players on the lists (we can't tell you which team has more), with a combined 14 top-100 defenders and 28 players overall.
• Nine offensive players and four defenders were ranked with a grade of 9.0 or better.
What's with all those wideouts?
"Thirty in the top 100?" asked A.J. Green, the Cincinnati Bengals' talented wideout. "Oh, man, that's crazy. Yeah, lately we've been getting the most shine. That says a lot about the way the game is played today. Everybody wants to take it to the air."
And where do Green and his incendiary numbers from a year ago -- 97 catches for 1,350 yards and 11 touchdowns -- fall on our list?
"Whoa," said Green, laughing. "I've only played two years. I have so much more to prove. The receiver position is all about consistency. You have to line up and do it on every play, every game, every season."
Even though they were eligible, our show-me voters neglected to place any of the freshly minted draftees into either top 100. One Pro Bowl quarterback who actually led his team to a playoff victory back in January didn't make the cut. Another signal-caller whose team was 7-9 somehow did. He was No. 100 exactly -- a long fall for a former Heisman Trophy winner, No. 1 overall draft choice and NFL Rookie of the Year.
John Clayton knows his NFL personnel. He is already enshrined in the writers' wing at the Pro Football Hall of Fame -- not to mention the sports hall of fame at his alma mater, Duquesne University -- our only voter with that glorious distinction.
He said he had no problem grading the 506 players on the ballot. Statistics, of course, are a solid benchmark, but Clayton dipped into his vast database during the process.
"First, who made the Pro Bowl?" Clayton asked. "And then I checked my list of who the alternates were. Salaries were another big factor. Coincidentally, the guys who get paid are the guys who usually get it done. The Titans didn't sign Andy Levitre for more than $7 million a year because he's the 30th-best guard in football."
Clayton believes these lists will give fans a better handle on how good their teams can actually be.
"San Francisco and Seattle have a lot of guys in the top 100," Clayton said. "The 49ers have 12 guys who have started a Pro Bowl on their roster. Seattle has 11, and maybe the best corner in the league, Richard Sherman. Look at the Kansas City Chiefs. They had four guys play the [Pro Bowl] game earlier this year. That shows they're a lot more than a two-win team."
A few more tasty numbers for those brave souls who made it this far:
• The first three offensive players play different positions, but all perform in the same division. Even casual fans will figure this one out, but we challenge you to predict the order in which they're ranked.
• The top-ranked defensive player is graded so high above his peers, relatively speaking, it's almost hard to believe. His ranking is more than a full point higher than that of player No. 10.
• Every team in the league has an offensive representative -- with one exception: the Oakland Raiders. Running back Darren McFadden is No. 112. The Raiders have only one player in the top 200, a total matched by a team that plays about 3,000 miles away. Incredibly, a playoff team is third-to-last, with only three ranked players.
Gary Horton worked as a scout in the NFL for a decade. These days, he's our Insider scout, giving you all kinds of insights into the nuances of the game. When he worked for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, Horton's job was to evaluate the rest of the league's players.
He did the same thing as one of our voters for this project. The difference? The Bucs and the league's other 31 teams keep their evaluations private. We, as a public service, are giving up the goods.
"You're absolutely in a constant evaluation process," Horton explained. "You spend six months of the offseason grading guys and then you get a chance to see them in training camp. You have to know which guys aren't going to make a team's final 53, and you also need to know which guys could become available because teams have a surplus at a position.
"I guarantee you the Patriots have looked at the other 31 teams for tight ends and receivers. Say, if the 49ers have eight receivers, they'll only keep six. They've got a list of the guys who are not going to make it and they know who they'll go for. The good pro personnel departments have a grade on everybody because you never know when you're going to get the chance to get a guy. You have to be ready."
Oh, we're ready.
Follow the top 100 series for the next 10 days on ESPN.com. Not only will it help you in your fantasy draft, it will give you the upper hand in those, uh, debates with the strident opposing fans around the watercooler.
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ESPN.com's #NFLrank project lines up the 100 top players on each side of the ball.