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12 Jul 2004

The Football Outsiders Top 50 Players Roundtable

Aaron: So, Mike had drawn attention to Pete Prisco's article on his top 50 players in the NFL. I thought it might be interesting to do our own Football Outsiders top 50, figuring it out by consensus.  As you might expect, our list will be different from Prisco's when it comes to a few players (goodbye, Ricky Williams).  Now, obviously, this is a bit of a silly exercise -- none of us watches every team in the NFL every week, and trying to pick out the achievements of individual linemen is probably about as meaningful as watching Pat Buchanan give Democrats advice on Hardball, but what the heck.  It's July, and we need to fill space.

First, here is Prisco's original list that we're using as our jumping-off point; you can read his article for his commentary:

1 Peyton Manning, QB, Colts
2 Ray Lewis, LB, Ravens
3 Steve McNair, QB, Titans
4 Priest Holmes, RB, Chiefs
5 LaDainian Tomlinson, RB, Chargers
6 Randy Moss, WR, Vikings
7 Marvin Harrison, WR, Colts
8 Kris Jenkins, DT, Panthers
9 Champ Bailey, CB, Broncos
10 Jonathan Ogden, T, Ravens
11 Clinton Portis, RB, Redskins
12 Tom Brady, QB, Patriots
13 Jamal Lewis, RB, Ravens
14 Richard Seymour, DE, Patriots
15 Ahman Green, RB, Packers
16 Chris McAlister, CB, Ravens
17 Mike Strahan, DE, Giants
18 Brett Favre, QB, Packers
19 Michael Vick, QB, Falcons
20 Deuce McAllister, RB, Saints
21 Charles Woodson, CB, Raiders
22 Al Wilson, MLB, Broncos
23 Ty Law, CB, Patriots
24 Brian Dawkins, S, Eagles
25 Derrick Brooks, LB, Bucs
26 Orlando Pace, T, Rams
27 Julian Peterson, LB, 49ers
28 Tony Gonzalez, TE, Chiefs
29 Torry Holt, WR, Rams
30 Brian Urlacher, LB, Bears
31 LaVar Arrington, LB, Redskins
32 Terrell Owens, WR, Eagles
33 Marcus Stroud, DT, Jaguars
34 Jason Taylor, DE, Dolphins
35 Jeremy Shockey, TE, Giants
36 Walter Jones, T, Seahawks
37 Ed Reed, S, Ravens
38 Donovan McNabb, QB, Eagles
39 Fred Taylor, RB, Jaguars
40 Todd Heap, TE, Ravens
41 Takeo Spikes, LB, Bills
42 Simeon Rice, DE, Bucs
43 Roy Williams, S, Cowboys
44 Patrick Surtain, CB, Dolphins
45 Keith Bulluck, LB, Titans
46 Chad Johnson, WR, Bengals
47 Ricky Williams, RB, Dolphins
48 Andre Johnson, WR, Texans
49 Jevon Kearse, DE, Eagles
50 Steve Hutchinson, G, Seahawks

Mike: Here are my choices for people who need to be added to this list:

Jordan Gross, T, CAR (I think his continuing development was one reason the Panthers peaked at the end of the season)
Tom Nalen, C, DEN (dominant when I saw him)
Charles Tillman, CB, CHI (you've already written the response to anyone who disagrees)
Mike Rucker, DL, CAR (doesn't get enough credit but is probably the Panthers' best lineman)

Aaron: Getting to 50 is a lot harder than I expected. I found some names I wanted to add to the list but had a hard time figuring out who to remove to make room for them.  Here are my notes on players who aren't on the list:

Willie Roaf, T, KC - The whole KC offensive machine couldn't go without the O-line and he anchors it.
Matt Birk, C, MIN - I believe he's considered the best on the MIN offensive line, which is like Denver's line in that you plug in any RB and he's successful.
Bobby Engram, WR, SEA - I wanted to include my "most underrated receiver in the NFL" but on further thought I don't think I can find enough guys to remove from the list in order to make room for him.
Derrick Mason, WR, TEN - This guy is the second most underrated receiver in the NFL, though, and he's got to go on.
Adewale Ogunleye, DE, MIA
Peter Boulware, LB, BAL

For the most part I think Prisco has the top "skill" guys and too few linemen. But it is also worth considering why Andre Johnson is on his list ahead of Hines Ward and Anquan Boldin.  Plus, why are Fred Taylor and Deuce McAllister on the list, but Shaun Alexander is not despite much better numbers and more wins for his team? And, likewise, what about Matt Hasselbeck?

Mike: I think Anquan Boldin deserves to be quite high on the list. He played very well on a team with no other offensive threats.

I've never been big on Ogunleye because I think he makes a lot of his plays when the opposing offense is trying to avoid Jason Taylor. But other than that I agree with all the names you mentioned.

On espn.com, you can vote for the ESPY for best NFL player. The choices are McNair, Manning, Jamal Lewis, Ray Lewis, Tom Brady and Priest Holmes. I personally would put Tomlinson in the mix; if he were on a better team a lot of people would consider him the best player in the league.

Here's Prisco's breakdown: 6 QB 8 RB 4 OL 6 WR 3 TE 7 DL 8 LB 8 DB.  I think it's absurd to have twice as many running backs as offensive linemen.

Al: Here are some of my quick thoughts:

Ray Lewis should be #1.

Richard Seymour seems a little high at #14, but I can't make a convincing argument against it.

Brett Favre doesn't belong in the top 20. He was wildly inconsistent last year and just mediocre to poor in the second half if you take away the Oakland game. He's here on reputation, not performance.

Deuce McAllister at #20? Way too high. Three big games in the middle of the year doesn't make you a top 20 player.

Julian Peterson should be in the top 20 ahead of Favre and McAllister.

Jeremy Shockey doesn't deserve to be on the list at all. He's done nothing to earn this ranking other than get injured, drop passes and date Tara Reid. (Did he date Tara Reid? He had to at some point, right?)

Walter Jones is ridiculously underrated. The guy holds out every year and you can tell it from Seattle's rushing numbers. The Seahawks rushing game never gets going full steam until Jones has a few games under his belt. I'd put him ahead of Pace.

Todd Heap? Todd Heap? Todd Heap on this list and ahead of Takeo Spikes? I can't imagine how Todd Heap made it on this list. He had the 3rd most receiving yards of any TE in the league and that somehow qualifies him to be the 40th best player in the NFL? Todd Heap!?!?

Roy Williams should be higher. He's already one of the best safeties in the league and could be the best in a year or two.

What has Andre Johnson ever done? He caught fewer that 1000 yards for an awful football team. Why Johnson over Boldin if you want a rookie WR in there?

Where's Mike Vanderjagt? He was clearly the best player in the NFL at his position last year and has been one of the top 5 at his position pretty much since he got in the league. How many people on the list can say that? Certainly not Todd F'n Heap.

How do the Packers not have any linemen on the list? Or the Chiefs? The Chiefs have consistently had an above average offensive line, but they can't get one guy on there? I hate lists.

Aaron: I agree with Al on Ray Lewis at #1. I don't think people understand how good the Baltimore defense was last year. That offense was miserable, and the defense was constantly forced to defend terrible field position. That's why I suggested Peter Boulware as a possible add to the list, he's another major part of that Ravens defense.

In a related note, the idea that Todd Heap is one of the top 50 players in the NFL is insane. The idea that three Ravens offensive players should be on this list is insane. Ogden is about right, Jamal Lewis is too high, and Heap shouldn't even be sniffing this list. Shockey either, although he was showing improvement before his injury last year. Only one tight end should be on this list, and that is Tony Gonzalez.

I actually disagree with you on Seymour, I think he should be higher. So we can compromise and leave him where he is. Ty Law should be higher, though. Did anyone watching the NFL last year think that Charles Woodson was better than Ty Law? I'd consider sticking Rodney Harrison on this list as well, but I think we run out of room. Maybe if we were doing top 75.

At the risk of starting yet another Tom Brady debate, however, Brady is too high at 12. I love Tom Brady, and his ability to manage the game is unparalleled in the NFL. But the Patriots have been a defense-first team for three years. You stick Peyton Manning or Steve McNair on that team and they go 15-1 last year, not 14-2, and they don't miss the playoffs in 2002 either. Unlike Manning, Brady doesn't have to face a Belichick/Crenel defense in the playoffs. I would move Brady below Michael Vick. Yes, Vick is a lot of hype, but he took a 7-9 team to 9-6-1 and a shocking playoff win in Green Bay, and that team collapsed to 5-11 without him. (In terms of offensive DVOA, Atlanta was 20th in 2001 and 24th in 2003 without Vick, and 6th in 2002 with him).

I agree with you on Favre but wouldn't drop him too much. That inconsistency last year was almost all due to the thumb injury. I don't know who I would drop him below, other than Vick. Would you rather have Favre, or McNabb? Or Hasselbeck?

You are right on Walter Jones. He was there all last year, but in 2002 the Seahawks' line yards and rushing DVOA were significantly lower in the three games he missed holding out.

I'd be interested in Al's opinion on Michael Strahan as our resident Giants expert.

As for Vanderjagt, he's missing from the list because of kickoffs. According to my massively upgraded special teams method (article to come!) Vanderjagt was worth 18 points above average in field goals last year -- but was 8 points below average on kickoffs, when you factor in that he played more than half his games indoors. The best kicker was David Akers, who was top three in both kickoffs and field goals. But special teams are so inconsistent from year to year that I feel comfortable leaving all the special teams guys off the top 50. We can talk about Vanderjagt or Akers or Dante Hall, but last year in this same conversation we would have been talking about Vinatieri or Michael Lewis of the Saints, and neither of them was anywhere near as good in 2003 as they were in 2002.

Fritz: Not that I'm up on any of these players... but, if Walter Jones holds out every year and his numbers reflect that, shouldn't he be rated on those numbers?

I guess that begs the question of what "greatest players" means. Potential, ability, or actual performance?

I love begging all questions.

Mike: Walter Jones is good, but I agree with Fritz that if Jones chooses to hold out every year, that's his right, but it's also a mark against him. Part of being a great player is working hard in practice to help your team become one cohesive unit.

I'm not sure I share everyone's enthusiasm for bashing Todd Heap. Don't get me wrong; I'm not saying he's a Top 50 player, but I do think he's a better blocker than he gets credit for, and I also think it would be hard for anyone to be a good pass catcher with the collection of stiffs Heap has had throwing him the ball.

It's absurd to have Andre Johnson on the list. If we wanted to make a list of the 50 players with the best potential, I'd include Andre Johnson, but if we're going to judge players by what they've accomplished on the field he's not even close.

I'd put Brady somewhere around No. 30.

Among the offensive linemen I like (aside from the ones already named) are Casey Wiegmann, Will Shields, Brian Waters, Mike Wahle, Jon Jansen, and Kevin Mawae.

Fritz: Dittoes, Rush. After all, if it was about potential, then my man Akili Smith would be in the NFL Top 50 right now, instead of being #7 on "Ryan Leaf's Top 50 Barbecue Buddies."

Russell: You've all made some excellent points. I have to give Prisco credit though -- compiling a list like this is very difficult. How can you accurately rate offensive and defensive lineman without access to coaching film? The performance of linemen is so dependent upon their teammates that it's difficult to rate them individually.

I'd have to agree with the selection of Lewis as #1. He's hyped to death, but I think its impossible to underistmate the way he makes every single player around him better. Since their Super Bowl team, the Ravens have plugged in a bunch of new names on defense and Lewis has them playing nearly as well is that 2000 team.

I love Kris Jenkins, but I think he might be a bit high at #8. Carolina has an excellent front four, I think he benefits from his teammates. I also think he takes plays off sometimes.

As a Bucs fan, I have to protest dropping Derrick Brooks from #1 to #25 in one year. The Bucs defense suffered as a whole last year, but Brooks still has an unbelievable nose for the football and is a very sure tackler. He seems to have plenty left in the tank.

I think Brady is too high by maybe 10 spots or so. Some players are not best measured by numbers and I think he's one of them -- the way the game is played today, being a "game manager" is worth a lot more than it used to be, and he's the best in the business, so still deserves a lofty ranking.

I'd like to see Tory Holt a little higher than #29. I think his rep suffers from all the talent the Rams have had on offense, but he was their best offensive player last year.

Overrated: Champ Bailey, Jeremy Shockey, Jevon Kearse, LaVar Arrington.

Bailey and Shockey both strike me as guys living off the reps they got as high draft picks. Arrington too. Arrington is the type of player that will make the spectacular play, then be out of position on the game winning touchdown two plays later. He's just wildly undisciplined.  Kearse is still living off the rep he built his first two seasons. He hasn't been a consistent enough threat since then because of injury.

Underrated: Brian Dawkins, Steve Hutchinson. Tough to rate safeties and guards above the more glamorous corners and tackles, but Dawkins plays with Ray Lewis like intensity and elevates his teammates. He'll prove his worth this year with the Eagles' green corners. Hutchinson has been a pro's pro since day one.

Anybody else want to see Samari Rolle on the list? It seems that every time I watch the Titans, he makes a big play.

Aaron: I've tried to put together's everyone's comments and re-order the list.  I've moved Ty Law up significantly; nobody seems to disagree with my belief that he is the league's best cornerback, and since he owned Marvin Harrison in the playoffs I think he deserves to be rated higher. That leaves Randy Moss as the top wideout, which makes me a little uncomfortable given his well-known tendency to take off for a few plays a game, and the fact that his 2002 DVOA wasn't really very good.

I've added Willie Roaf, Tom Nalen, Matt Birk, Derrick Mason, and Anquan Boldin.  I hope my explanation about Mike Vanderjagt's kickoffs, and the general inconsistency of special teams, is enough for everyone to agree on leaving all those guys off the list.

I've removed from Prisco's list McAllister (20), Shockey (35), Heap (40), Ricky Williams (47), and Andre Johnson (48).  Some of the guys we wanted to drop off the list were clear. The one that isn't is Deuce McAllister, who is the highest guy I've removed. Should he be back on instead of Fred Taylor? Or perhaps they should both come off the list, making room for someone else?

One more name worth adding to the list of those under consideration, perhaps: Dwight Freeney?

Russell: I don't think Freeney qualifies yet. He's still a pretty one-dimensional player, kind of like Simeon Rice was when he played in Arizona.

I think Ricky Williams has to be somewhere in the 41-50 range, but that's just me.

Mike: Here are my thoughts.

Drop the following out altogether: Jevon Kearse, Chad Johnson, Simeon Rice, and Terrell Owens.

Move the following somewhere into the 40-50 range: Mike Wahle, Jordan Gross, Charles Tillman, and Mike Rucker.

Move Moss behind Holt, move Brady behind Woodson, and you'd have a perfect list, from my perspective.

Russell: I must protest the removal of Rice altogether. I think he belongs right about #38. He's among the most dominant edge rushers in the game, and has made himself much better against the run. When the Bucs needed a big play last season on defense (granted, they didn't get nearly enough of them) more often than not it was Rice delivering. If anything, his rep suffered because he was overshadowed by Sapp on the Tampa Bay D-line, but he was the far more dominant player.

Aaron: I vote for keeping Brady above Woodson, but Moss behind Holt is doable. As the rest of the St. Louis offense fell apart last year -- Bulger couldn't stop throwing picks, Faulk was a shell of his former self -- Holt and Bruce kept on producing, and Holt had his best year ever.

I'm not with Russell on keeping Ricky but I am on keeping Simeon Rice. Remember, the Tampa Defense was #2 in DVOA last year. They're still darn good.

I also think Terrell Owens still deserves to be in the top 50. Perhaps he won't live up to that ranking this year, but I think he's proven himself worthy of it for the past few years, despite a slight off-year in 2003.

I feel kind of iffy about Tillman because while he had a good rookie year, he wasn't transcendant. Not as standout as Boldin, for example. I was surprised when Chicago showed up on that "best against #1 receivers" list, but remember, they weren't first or second. They were seventh.

I'll buy Gross over Wahle. Not that Wahle isn't great, but a tackle is usually more important than a guard.

Since nobody but me wants to talk about Hasselbeck, I'll assume nobody feels he belongs on this list. I wouldn't mind sticking him at #50. He's been very good the last two years.

Mike: Kearse, Johnson, Rice and Owens are actually four of my favorite non-Lions in the league. Rice was at Illinois when I went there, Johnson is one of the few guys who really seems to love being on the field, Kearse is one of the most fun defensive players to watch because he can make a huge play at any time, and I love how hard Owens works at staying in shape. (Yes, seriously, I'm a Terrell Owens fan. So sue me.) But my reasoning against all of them is that I think they're all wildly inconsistent. But, hey, if I'm out-voted on this, it's fine by me, because I like them all very much.

Patrick: The rest of you definitely know the players better than me but I don't think I would have ranked Tom Brady all that high. I think he only has intangibles and a good system.

Mike: Yes, the more I think about it the more I don't understand why you want to have Brady so high in the Top 50. His DVOA was 12th last year, 18th the year before. (Can you tell me what it was in 2001?) His DPAR is higher, but I think DPAR is a lot more important for receivers and running backs than it is for quarterbacks because when quarterbacks get a lot more attempts, it's more a function of playcalling than anything else. What have you seen that makes you want to put Brady higher than where DVOA says he should be? I think Seymour and Law both belong in the Top 10, but after those two I really think the Patriots are more a collection of good players all over the field than great players at the key positions -- that's what I like about the Patriots. I hate the idea that being the 30th or 40th best player in the entire league (that's about where I would put him) is a slap in the face, and I also hate the idea that the quarterback on the best team has to be one of the best players. If Vinatieri had missed the final field goal and the Panthers had taken back the OT kickoff for a touchdown, we'd have a lot of people claiming Delhomme is the best player in the league. I remember after the Ravens won the Super Bowl seeing alleged experts on TV claiming with a straight face that Trent Dilfer was one of the best players in the league.

Aaron: The answer is that DVOA is still (somewhat) a measure of an entire offense, not just that quarterback. We're nowhere near the stage where I can separate a player's personal abilities from the offensive system or the receivers or the blockers. That's why I think DVOA does understate the ability of McNabb, for example. I think Brady does better with the offense he has, the talent he has around him, than Green or Hasselbeck does with the talent they have around them. One game winning drive does not a career make but this guy has done it over and over and over again. Not enough to make him the best quarterback in football -- the idea that he's as good as Manning is silly -- but I can accept him as number five or six. Nonetheless, this is a democracy, so I'll move him back down a bit.

Oh, and Brady's DVOA in 2001 was 14th among quarterbacks with at least 100 pass attempts, +4.7%.

The one problem with wide receivers at this point is that, if we move Torry Holt above Randy Moss, we end up with three wide receivers in the top 10 and then a huge drop to Terrell Owens or Derrick Mason.  After the research I've done on the wide receivers from the Class of 1996, I'm going to move both Marvin Harrison and Terrell Owens down just a little.

Al: D'oh!  I forgot to reply about Strahan. I think he's overrated, but he does have 52 sacks over the last three seasons. He's not especially good against the run, the Giants have only been slightly above average against runs to his side of the line the past two years. I think he's a bit too one dimensional to be called one of the best 20 players in the NFL. I'd drop him between Orlando Pace and Jamal Lewis.

Ian: I would move Richard Seymour up even more.  I would move him above Champ Bailey, no hesitation.  And I'm in agreement with Aaron about Matt Hasselbeck.  He really does pass the ball well.

Aaron: Yay!  Someone agrees with me on Hasselbeck.  Listen, somebody has to get the credit for that Seattle offense, and given the number of dropped passes I don't think it is going to be the receivers.  The question is who to drop off the list.  I'm honestly not comfortable dropping anyone else from Prisco's list, and I like our additions.  So I'm going to cheat and put both Jordan Gross and Anquan Boldin at #50.  You have to do it for more than a year before you can move up the list.

That does it for our comments. Here's the first annual Football Outsiders Top 50 NFL Players list, with Prisco's original rank in parentheses:

1 Ray Lewis, LB, Ravens (2)
2 Peyton Manning, QB, Colts (1)
3 Steve McNair, QB, Titans (3)
4 Priest Holmes, RB, Chiefs (4)
5 LaDainian Tomlinson, RB, Chargers (5)
6 Ty Law, CB, Patriots (23)
7 Torry Holt, WR, Rams (29)
8 Richard Seymour, DE, Patriots (14)
9 Jonathan Ogden, T, Ravens (10)
10 Champ Bailey, CB, Broncos (9)
11 Randy Moss, WR, Vikings (6)
12 Clinton Portis, RB, Redskins (11)
13 Marvin Harrison, WR, Colts (7)
14 Ahman Green, RB, Packers (15)
15 Kris Jenkins, DT, Panthers (8)
16 Michael Vick, QB, Falcons (19)
17 Chris McAlister, CB, Ravens (16)
18 Derrick Brooks, LB, Bucs (25)
19 Al Wilson, LB, Broncos (22)
20 Brian Dawkins, S, Eagles (24)
21 Julian Peterson, LB, 49ers (27)
22 Orlando Pace, T, Rams (26)
23 Mike Strahan, DE, Giants (17)
24 Jamal Lewis, RB, Ravens (13)
25 Charles Woodson, CB, Raiders (21)
26 Tony Gonzalez, TE, Chiefs (28)
27 Tom Brady, QB, Patriots (12)
28 Brian Urlacher, LB, Bears (30)
29 Brett Favre, QB, Packers (18)
30 Jason Taylor, DE, Dolphins (34)
31 Marcus Stroud, DT, Jaguars (33)
32 Walter Jones, T, Seahawks (36)
33 Ed Reed, S, Ravens (37)
34 Donovan McNabb, QB, Eagles (38)
35 Takeo Spikes, LB, Bills (41)
36 Simeon Rice, DE, Bucs (42)
37 Roy Williams, S, Cowboys (43)
38 Willie Roaf, LT, Chiefs (x)
39 Terrell Owens, WR, Eagles (32)
40 Tom Nalen, C, Broncos (x)
41 Derrick Mason, WR, Titans (x)
42 LaVar Arrington, LB, Redskins (31)
43 Fred Taylor, RB, Jaguars (39)
44 Patrick Surtain, CB, Dolphins (44)
45 Keith Bulluck, LB, Titans (45)
46 Matt Birk, C, Vikings (x)
47 Steve Hutchinson, G, Seahawks (50)
48 Chad Johnson, WR, Bengals (46)
49 Matt Hasselbeck, QB, Seahawks (x)
50t Anquan Boldin, WR, Cardinals (x)
50t Jordan Gross, T, Panthers (x)

Now it is time for the readers to respond.  Let us know who we forgot, who we moved too high, and who we moved too low.  Only one request: Please, no more debates about Tom Brady.  It's been done to death.

Posted by: admin on 12 Jul 2004

2 comments, Last at 15 Nov 2010, 9:23pm by hero


by chill (not verified) :: Thu, 06/16/2005 - 4:49pm

Uh, what about Larry Allen?? Last year might not have been his best, but he's still one of the premier guards in the game and he'll show his dominance again this year.

And I wouldn't mind taking off Shockey. He's done squat - maybe impressive his rookie season but nothing after. I wouldn't even pick him in a playground game. Unless you got points for trash talking. At least he's not totally useless.

Maybe someone needs to get him and Freddie Mitchel together to have a talk-off?

by hero (not verified) :: Mon, 11/15/2010 - 9:23pm

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